A P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft flies in its first international air show on Nov. 18 at Dubai 2013. A spate of low-level military confrontations between China and the U.S., the most recent on Aug. 19 involving a Navy P-8 Poseidon, is raising new questions about what is driving China's aggressive posture. (The Boeing Co.)
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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.
The Aug. 19 incident was the latest in “a rising trend of nonstandard, unprofessional and unsafe intercepts of U.S. aircraft by the Chinese” during the past few months, according to another defense official.
Tension on the sea has intensified, too. In December, the Navy cruiser Cowpens and a Chinese vessel almost collided when the Chinese ship cut across the Cowpens’ bow while the Cowpens was tracking a Chinese aircraft carrier in the same vicinity.
The incidents helped prompt a high-level meeting at the Pentagon on Aug. 26 and 27, where top uniformed officials from both countries discussed “standards of behavior for air and maritime activities,” said one official familiar with the talks.
In addition, the U.S. officers aimed to encourage their Chinese counterparts to adhere to the existing “Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea,” the official said. That includes the communications procedures, radio frequencies and other signals that ships can use to diffuse tension when underway at sea.
During the past several years, the Chinese military has stepped up its air and naval activity beyond its immediate coastline, resulting in more run-ins with U.S. ships and aircraft in the region.
Military experts say it’s unlikely that the aggressive behavior is directed from the Chinese military headquarters in Beijing. But ambitious Chinese commanders may feel this type of conduct is tacitly condoned.
“Commanders feel this is a way for them to stand out and get noticed,” Clark said. “And you have a leadership that is not discouraging them from that.”
Kirby said the Pentagon will simultaneously protest China’s aggressive behavior while also trying to improve its military-to-military relationship with the rising Pacific power.
“We’re going to continue to fly in international airspace the way we’ve been, just like we’re going to continue to sail our ships in international waters the way we’ve been. The United States is a Pacific power,” Kirby told reporters Aug. 26.
“Under no circumstances and under no rubric of military relations is it acceptable to fly a jet fighter around a reconnaissance airplane the way that was done [with the Navy P-8]. That said, that doesn’t mean that the relationship isn’t still worth pursuing, and we continue to look for avenues to try to increase the dialogue and the cooperation and the understanding and the transparency between our two countries. But, again, that incident did nothing to help that along,” the Pentagon spokesman said.