Another day, another alarming international incident over the always turbulent waters of the South China Sea. Yesterday, the Pentagon released a statement accusing two Chinese fighter jets of making an “unsafe” intercept of an American patrol plane over the disputed waterway.
In a statement first reported by ABC News, the Defense Department said that the incident occurred during “a routine US patrol” on Tuesday.
Pentagon spokesperson L. Col. Michelle Baldanza told NBC News on Wednesday that two J-11 Shenyang fighters had flown within 50 feet of a Navy EP-3 Orion surveillance aircraft as the Navy spy plane was conducting a routine mission.
This intercept occurred just a week after the Chinese military scrambled three fighter jets in the South China Sea as a US warship sailed within 12 miles of one of China’s largest artificial islands, in yet another operation countering China’s military buildup in the region. It also comes only a week after a Chinese Navy fighter jet crashed into a factory in Taizhou during a routine night training mission.
In the past two years, China has built more than 3,000 acres of territory on seven reefs in the South China Sea. Despite protests from neighboring nations, they have constructed runways on three of the artificial islands, allowing tourists to arrive and visit this land of cute female soldiers and veggie gardens. The US believes that China’s aggressive South China Sea claims threaten freedom of navigation in the busy shipping area. They have therefore sent out multiple military patrols close to the islands to test the waters, enraging China. Though, Steve Mollman, writing in Quartz, argues that this is all a show, and that Beijing is seeking provocations and setting the stage for war in the South China Sea.
While confrontations at sea are becoming a more and more common occurrence, this incident in the air can’t help but remind both sides of a 2001 mid-air collision between a US patrol plane and a Chinese fighter jet. The smaller Chinese plane was destroyed in the crash and the pilot was killed. Meanwhile, the American EP-3 was badly damaged and forced to make an emergency landing in Hainan.
The 24 crew members were held in China for over a week as Beijing demanded an apology for the incident. Eventually, Washington D.C. issued an intentionally ambiguously-worded diplomatic statement (an “expression of regret and sorrow”) that allowed both sides to save a little face. However, the American aircraft was only released a few months later, disassembled and packed onto a Russian plane.