Although China and the United States have long been at odds over American surveillance flights near Chinese territory, the all-too-close encounter of an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter last week has forced both countries to consider the potential for the dispute to escalate disastrously.
During a get-to-know-you visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to China in 2011, Xi Jinping, then the vice president, complained that American spy planes were frequently intruding into Chinese airspace.
Mr. Biden defended the flights as legal under international law, and warned against risky shadowing maneuvers, known as intercepts, by Chinese pilots, according to American officials familiar with the conversation.
Now, more than a decade after a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American spy plane off the southern Chinese coast, Chinese jets are flying close to American aircraft again.
Last week, the Chinese fighter pilot flew within 30 feet of a new-generation Navy spy plane, known as a P-8 Poseidon, in what the Pentagon said was “very, very close,
Since the meeting with Mr. Biden, Mr. Xi has become president. He has initiated a more assertive diplomatic posture in the region and championed measures intended to transform the Chinese military into a more capable, battle-ready force.
At the same time, Washington has deployed a new squadron of the advanced Navy P-8 surveillance planes to a base in Japan, in part out of concern over China’s new generation of nuclear-armed submarines.
The close-in flying tactics against the American spy planes were not only bad behavior by Chinese pilots as the Pentagon asserted but were indicative of a deliberate decision by China to push the United States surveillance farther and farther from the Chinese coast, Chinese experts said.
“The United States wants to be everywhere, but China says: ‘I’m a responsible power. I will take care of my business; you take care of your business,’ ” said Jin Canrong, a professor of international studies at Renmin University in Beijing. “China’s logic is that other countries are not my business, but when it comes to my country, it’s none of your business.”