When an armed Chinese fighter jet recently buzzed a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft over international waters in the South China Sea, it was just the latest in a series of low-level confrontations between the two militaries.
The spate of incidents is raising new questions about what is driving China’s aggressive posture and also prompting a new push to bring China to the table for discussion about air and maritime safety in the contested areas of the Pacific Rim.
“I think you’re seeing Chinese military commanders trying to push back against the U.S. for operating in their near abroad,” said Bryan Clark, a retired Navy commander who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The latest incident on Aug. 19 involved a Navy P-8 Poseidon that was flying a routine intelligence-gathering mission about 135 miles east of Hainan Island, China’s southernmost point.
The Navy aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese J-11B fighter that passed across the P-8’s nose at a 90-degree angle, flaunting its underbelly loaded with weaponry. The Chinese fighter also flew directly under and alongside the Navy aircraft before doing a Top Gun-style roll over the top of the U.S. aircraft. At one point the Chinese fighter’s wingtips came within about 20 feet of the P-8’s wings, defense officials said.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, described the incident as “very dangerous … unprofessional and unsafe.” The U.S. contacted the Chinese government afterward and “registered our concerns through official diplomatic channels,” Kirby said.