Nearly a year after China halted military efforts to counter US aerial surveillance operations in Asia, Beijing is once again stepping up hostile encounters toward US aircraft. In February and last week, China used dangerous aerial encounters in a bid to pressure the United States to halt spying from international airspace.
The most recent incident took place near the tension-filled Korean Peninsula when two Chinese Su-30 jets flew close to a nuclear-particle-sniffing WC-135 aircraft flying over the Yellow Sea and then over the northern East China Sea. One of the Chinese aircraft flew upside down, while passing within about 50 meters of the US Air Force jet, prompting protests from the Hawaii-based Pacific Air Forces.
Lieutenant-Colonel Lori Hodge, a Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman, said the incident took place as the WC-135 Constant Phoenix jet, a militarized Boeing 707, was operating in international airspace.
“The WC-135 was operating in accordance with international law,” she said. “While we are still investigating the incident, initial reports from the US aircrew characterized the intercept as unprofessional.”
Protests were lodged with the Chinese through diplomatic and military channels, she added.
A Pentagon official familiar with internal reports of the incident said the encounter was unusual. “The Chinese pilot did an inverted, ‘Top Gun’, hotdog maneuver,” said the official, adding that a similar dangerous encounter in 2001 set off a major US-China crisis.
That was when an EP-3 surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese F-8 interceptor jet whose pilot flew too close. After the collision, the Chinese pilot ditched and died. The 24 crew members of EP-3 were forced to make an emergency landing at China’s Hainan Island, where they were imprisoned for 11 days before being released.
The latest unprofessional intercept took place as the WC-135 reconnaissance aircraft was conducting one of its frequent flights aimed at detecting signs of any North Korean nuclear activities. Intelligence agencies have been closely monitoring North Korea for signs of a sixth underground blast that until last month appeared to be imminent.
The plane is one of two nuclear-detection aircraft based at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan.
“The Chinese have actually been on pretty good behavior compared to the Russians and the Iranians,” the American official said. “This latest incident does seem out of character. But they definitely don’t like us flying over the Yellow Sea.”
China’s military regards US surveillance flights, as well as ocean surveillance ship activity, especially in the Yellow Sea, as threats to its national security. China operates a major naval port at Dalian, north of the Yellow Sea, that is a major submarine base and a target of military intelligence monitoring.
Since early last year, China had backed off from conducting any threatening counter-surveillance operations against US aircraft and vessels. The hiatus is believed to have been linked to Chinese leaders’ concerns that any aggressive military activities aimed at the US military might negatively impact the US presidential election.
On February 10, a Chinese KJ-200 airborne warning and control jet flew dangerously close to a US EP-3 surveillance aircraft over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Until this incident, China had not engaged in any threatening aerial maneuvers for more than nine months, which the Pentagon attributed to Beijing’s worries about appearing to interfere in the US election campaign.
Chinese leaders are also said to be concerned about US President Donald Trump, whom they regard as unpredictable and more likely to resort to military force than his predecessor. That message was delivered to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his April meeting with Trump in Florida. On the day the leaders dined together at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield linked to alleged chemical-weapons attacks against civilians.
White House officials said the timing of the Syria strike was intended to signal to the Chinese that Trump was ready to use force when needed. China has made avoiding US use of military force in Asia as one of its highest priorities.
On the naval front, Beijing and Washington squared off last December after Chinese naval personnel seized an underwater drone in the South China Sea that Beijing said was being used for spying. After US protests, the Chinese turned over the research drone.
That event also was a break with some of China’s past efforts at intimidation of US naval vessels, such as the threatening encounters between the People’s Liberation Army’s naval vessels and US Navy surveillance ships in the South China Sea. Chinese military commentators said the underwater drone was being used to spy on Chinese submarine movements.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry press spokeswoman Hua Chunying sidestepped a question about the aerial encounter and referred queries to the Defense Ministry.
Retired US Navy Captain Jim Fanell, former intelligence chief for the Pacific Fleet, said the recent aerial encounter was significant.
“The PRC’s unprofessional intercept of our USAF WC-135 over the Yellow Sea is more than just a dangerous aviation stunt, it is also a virtual slap in the face to President Trump’s efforts to enlist Beijing’s support against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program,” Fanell said.
He said the event showed Beijing’s unwillingness to support the international community’s legitimate worries about North Korea’s dangerous nuclear-weapons testing.
“While many will seek to downplay this event as nothing more than a tactical aviation issue, the current administration should recognize the strategic signaling that is going on – that President Xi does not want the United States military in their ‘front yard’,” he said.
“Washington can either accept this reality or continue to hope the PRC can change its fundamental political orientation in exchange for a ‘good deal’.”
American officials who closely monitor Chinese military encounters with US military aircraft and vessels have said they do not know why China is renewing pressure on their surveillance activities. One theory is that the Chinese see the new Trump administration preoccupied with internal political disputes, such as the firing of the Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey and ensuing controversies over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The US political battles on the domestic front could provide the Chinese with an opportunity to pressure the Pentagon as part of the long-term goal of reducing US reconnaissance and surveillance activities in an area that China regards as its sphere of influence.