China is demanding that Washington immediately cease close surveillance along the country’s coast, following what the Pentagon described as an “unsafe” encounter between two Chinese fighter jets and a U.S. military plane.
The Pentagon said two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane on a routine patrol Tuesday in international airspace over the South China Sea.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Thursday that the Pentagon’s account was “not true.”
“The two Chinese fighter jets tracked and monitored [the U.S. plane] in accordance with the law and regulations,” he said, adding that the jets “continually kept a safe distance and did not take any dangerous actions.”
Hong said that the intercept occurred near China’s southern island province of Hainan and that it posed a “serious threat” to Chinese airspace.
The incident comes as President Barrack Obama is preparing to embark on a historic trip to the region, where he will become the first president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States carried out the world’s first atomic bomb attack during World War II.
He will also visit former wartime foe Vietnam for the first time during the trip.
Concerns have been growing in the region over China’s aggressive approach to its territorial claims, especially those in disputed waters in the South China Sea. It has been quickly moving to build up massive artificial islands, complete with airstrips and military facilities.
In the coming weeks, a ruling is expected in an international case that the Philippines has lodged against Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.
China, which has refused to participate in the court case, is in the midst of a massive public relations campaign to build support for its position before the ruling. Beijing argues territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be handled bilaterally by claimants and not through what it regards as international intervention.
But based on what Chinese authorities have said in response, this week’s air intercept incident appears to be more related to a long-standing dispute over military surveillance flights off China’s coast. Beijing has long complained about the surveillance flights and demanded they stop.
According to the Chinese, the incident took place near Hainan Island, so “it is kind of like the long-standing disagreement [between] the U.S. and China with regards to access of foreign military vessels and aircraft into Chinese maritime areas, and so it’s not a South China Sea issue per se,” said William Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. patrol plane off the coast of Hainan. The plane’s crew of 24 was forced to make an emergency landing on the island. A Chinese pilot was killed during the collision and the incident prompted a major diplomatic crisis.