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The interception of a United States Air Force reconnaissance plane by a Chinese fighter in the South China Sea should serve as a potential warning of how easily and quickly things can go horribly wrong — risking a deadly military clash between the two power, analysts say.
The incident in question happened on December 21 in the northern part of the South China Sea, which according to the US was an international airspace.
A Chinese J-11 fighter jet flew within 20 feet of an RC-135 Rivet Joint, an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft with about 30 people on board, while performing what the U.S. military described as a “dangerous maneuver.” forced According to the statement of the American command in the Indo-Pacific, which was published on December 28, the plane “conducted evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision.”
It released video of the incident, which shows the Chinese plane flying to the left and slightly above the American four-wheeler, similar to the Boeing 707s of the 1960s and 70s, and then gradually coming closer to its nose. before walking away. .
The Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army, in a report by China Military Online, gave a different interpretation of the encounter, saying that the American aircraft “suddenly changed its flight attitude and forced the Chinese aircraft to the left”.
“Such a dangerous approach maneuver had a serious impact on the flight safety of the Chinese military aircraft,” the report said.
It released its own video of the incident, taken from a fighter jet, which appeared to show the RC-135 moving closer to the fighter and behind it.
Aviation and military experts contacted by CNN who viewed the two videos said it appeared the Chinese plane was clearly mistaken and had no reason to approach the American plane.
“The 135 was in international airspace and is a large, slow, non-maneuverable aircraft. The responsibility of the smaller, faster, more maneuverable aircraft approaching is to stay clear and not cause problems for either aircraft,” said Peter Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer, now at the Griffith Institute of Asia.
“The purpose of the interception was probably to visually detect the aircraft, and the fighter could stand several miles away and do that. It would not do any good to get close,” he said.
Robert Hopkins, a retired US Air Force officer who flew similar reconnaissance aircraft, also rejected the Chinese interpretation of the events.
“(Chito’s) answer is so far from reality it’s fantastical. An unarmed, jet-sized aircraft doesn’t aggressively translate into an agile armed fighter,” Hopkins said.
But Hopkins also said the US military had blown the risk of the incident out of proportion, saying the US aircraft had to perform “evasive manoeuvres”, a term he described as “overly dramatic”.
“These are no different than a driver adjusting his position to avoid temporarily entering the lane of an adjacent driver,” Hopkins said. “The US response is pure theater and unnecessarily creates an exaggerated sense of danger.”
But while the incident itself was handled safely by U.S. pilots, experts agree that the close distance between the U.S. and Chinese planes seen in the footage leaves little room for error.
Blake Herzinger, a non-resident fellow and expert on Indo-Pacific defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, “flying airplanes at each other at 500 miles per hour with ulterior motives is generally dangerous.”
“At this distance, an unexpected maneuver or equipment problem can cause a catastrophic accident in a split second,” Herzinger said.
And Herzinger said the current state of U.S.-China military relations means that accidents could quickly escalate into armed conflict.
“It should be remembered that the PLA has effectively destroyed any hotlines or discussion forums to resolve potential incidents with the United States. If containment goes wrong, there are fewer options for senior officers to limit potential escalation,” he said.
Layton noted another potential danger that could lead to an escalation of tensions. As seen in the US video, the Chinese aircraft is equipped with air-to-air missiles.
“The 135 is an unarmed aircraft. Why does PLAN think it is necessary to intercept the launchers when the purpose was to visually identify the aircraft? Doing so is potentially dangerous and could lead to a major and tragic incident. deliver,” Layton said.
But at a regular press briefing on Friday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the incident was just the latest in a series of US provocations that threaten stability in the region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “Let me point out that for a long time, the US has been deploying aircraft and ships for reconnaissance near China, which poses a serious threat to China’s national security.”
China’s Southern Theater Command said the US reconnaissance aircraft was flying “near China’s southern coast and the Xisha Islands”, known in the West as the Paracels, where Beijing has built military facilities.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said the RC-135 was in international airspace and was “conducting normal operations lawfully”.
China claims almost all of the vast South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including many remote islands and disputed waterways, many of which Beijing has militarized.
The US does not recognize these territorial claims and regularly conducts operations there, including freedom of navigation through the South China Sea.
“Provocative and dangerous actions of the US are the main cause of maritime security problems. China urges the US to desist from such dangerous provocations and stop shifting the blame to China,” Wang said.
But Washington continues to point the finger at China in these arrests, which have been going on for decades.
In the most infamous incident in 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US reconnaissance plane near Hainan Island in the northern South China Sea, causing a major crisis as the Chinese pilot was killed and the damaged US plane barely managed to land safely. Chinese territory. The American crew was released after 11 days of intensive negotiations.
After a series of incidents last year involving the interception of US and allied aircraft by Chinese warplanes, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the PLA’s actions were on the rise and “should concern us all.”
Layton said he thinks Beijing may have provoked the US military last month and filmed it.
“There was no point in the fighter flying so close, except to cause an incident – which was manually recorded on a high-definition video camera, which the fighter crew happened to have and was using. This event appears to have been very well planned, if dangerously so, by the Plan,” he said.