Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s China News Bulletin, updated three times a week, which explores what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it will affect the world. Register here.
Last month’s interception of a Chinese fighter jet by a US Air Force spy plane over the South China Sea should be seen as a potential warning of how easily and quickly things can go awry – raising the risk of a deadly military confrontation between the two countries. two powers, analysts say.
The incident in question happened on December 21 in the northern part of the South China Sea, in the international airspace of the United States.
In what the U.S. military called a “safe maneuver,” a Chinese Navy J-11 fighter jet flew within 20 feet of an RC-135 Rivet Joint unarmed reconnaissance aircraft with about 30 people on board, forcing the U.S. According to a December 28 statement from the US Indo-Pacific Command, the aircraft will perform evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision.
It released a video of a Chinese fighter jet flying to the left and slightly above an American four-engine jet similar to the Boeing 707s of the 1960s and 70s, then slowly nosediving away. .
The People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command, in a statement on China Military Online, interpreted the encounter differently, saying it was a US aircraft that “abruptly changed its attitude and turned the Chinese aircraft to the left”.
“Such a dangerous approach maneuver had a significant impact on the flight safety of Chinese military aircraft,” the report said.
He posted his own video from the fighter jet of the incident, which shows the RC-135 approaching and trailing the fighter.
Aviation and military experts contacted by CNN who have seen the two videos said the Chinese plane made a mistake and had no reason to approach the American plane.
“135 was in international airspace and was a large, slow, unmanageable aircraft. “It remains clear that the approaching smaller, faster and more maneuverable aircraft will not cause problems for either aircraft,” said Peter Layton, a former officer in the Royal Australian Air Force who is now at the Griffith Asia Institute.
“The purpose of this was to visually identify the aircraft, and the fighter could stay several miles away and perform this task. “Being closer will not bring any benefit,” he said.
Robert Hopkins, a retired US Air Force officer who flew similar reconnaissance planes, rejected the Chinese interpretation of events.
“(China’s) response is so far from the truth that it is fabricated. An unarmed, airliner-sized aircraft does not become an aggressively armed agile fighter,” Hopkins said.
But Hopkins also risked blowing the incident out of proportion by saying the US military should have taken “evasive manoeuvres”, a term he called “too dramatic”.
“It’s no different than a driver adjusting their position to avoid a neighboring driver temporarily entering the lane,” Hopkins said. “The US response is pure theater and creates an exaggerated sense of threat.”
But even if the incident itself was handled safely by American pilots, experts agreed that the short distance between the US and Chinese planes seen in the videos leaves little room for error.
“Airplanes flying at 500 miles per hour with unfriendly intentions are generally dangerous,” said Blake Herzinger, a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on defense policy in the Indo-Pacific.
“An unexpected maneuver or equipment problem at such a distance can cause a catastrophic accident in seconds,” Herzinger said.
And Herzinger said the current state of U.S.-China military relations means accidents could quickly escalate into armed conflict.
“It should be remembered that the PLA has effectively destroyed any hotlines or discussion forums for dealing with potential incidents with the United States. If containment goes wrong, there are fewer opportunities than ever for senior officers to limit potential escalation,” he said.
Leighton noted another threat that could lead to escalation. As seen in the American video, Chinese planes are armed with air-to-air missiles.
“135 is an unarmed aircraft. Why does the PLAN consider it necessary to remove missiles aimed at visual identification of the aircraft? Doing so is dangerous and could lead to a major and tragic incident,” Leighton said.
However, at a regular press briefing on Friday, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that this incident is the latest in US provocations that threaten stability in the region.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “For a long time, the US has frequently deployed aircraft and ships to conduct reconnaissance in close proximity to China, which poses a serious threat to China’s national security.”
China’s Southern Theater Command said the US spy plane flew “near China’s southern coast and the Xisha Islands, known to 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 “conducting lawful routine operations”.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including many remote islands and inlets in the disputed watershed, many of which Beijing has militarized.
The US does not recognize these territorial claims and maintains regular operations there, including navigational operations through the South China Sea.
“The provocative and dangerous actions of the United States are the root cause of the security problem at sea. “China urges the US to stop such dangerous provocations and stop blaming China,” Wang said.
But Washington has been pointing the finger at China in these decades-old passages.
In the most infamous incident in 2001, a Chinese warplane collided with a US spy plane near Hainan Island in the northern South China Sea, killing the Chinese pilot and causing a major crisis as the injured US plane barely made it to a safe landing. Chinese territory. The American crew was released after 11 days of intense negotiations.
After a series of incidents last year in which Chinese warplanes intercepted US and allied aircraft, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the PLA’s actions were escalating and “should worry us all”.
Layton thinks Beijing may have tried to provoke the US military last month and filmed it.
“There was no benefit to the fighter flying so close – it was only possible to create an incident – which was easily recorded on a high-definition video camera that the fighter crew just had and was using. “If the event is very dangerous, it seems to be very well planned by PLAN,” he said.