Two Chinese jets intercepted an American radiation-sniffing surveillance plane that was flying over the East China Sea, drawing Washington’s ire that accused Beijing of “unprofessional” behavior.
A pair of Chinese fighter jets conducted an “unprofessional” intercept of the plane, the US Air Force said Friday, the latest in a series of such incidents that have raised US concerns in an already tense region.
On Wednesday, the two Chinese SU-30 jets approached a WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft — a modified Boeing C-135 — conducting a routine mission in international airspace in accordance with international law, Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman Lt. Col. Lori Hodge said in a statement.
The WC-135 crew characterized the intercept as unprofessional “due to the maneuvers by the Chinese pilot, as well as the speeds and proximity of both aircraft,” Hodge said.
She declined to provide further details and said the issue would be addressed with China through “appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”
“We would rather discuss it privately with China,” Hodge said in an email to The Associated Press. “This will allow us to continue building confidence with our Chinese counterparts on expected maneuvering to avoid mishaps.”
China declared an air defense identification zone over a large section of the East China Sea in 2013, a move the US called illegitimate and has refused to recognize.
China has demanded foreign aircraft operating within the zone declare their intentions and follow Chinese instructions. Hodge declined to say whether Wednesday’s incident was within the self-declared Chinese zone.
“US military aircraft routinely transit international airspace throughout the Pacific, including the East China Sea,” she said. “This flight was no exception.”
China’s Ministry of National Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Unexpected and unsafe intercepts involving US and Chinese military aircraft have occurred occasionally over the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety. Although China says it respects freedom of navigation in the strategically vital area, it objects to US military activities, especially the collection of signals intelligence by US craft operating near the coast of its southern island province of Hainan, home to several military installations.
In recent years, the sides have signed a pair of agreements aimed at preventing such encounters from sparking an international crisis, as happened in April 2001 when a Chinese jet fighter collided with a US surveillance plane over the South China Sea, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot and China’s detention of the 24 US crew members for 10 days.
On Thursday, Japan scrambled fighter jets after four Chinese coastguard vessels entered what Japan considers its territorial waters near disputed East China Sea islets and a drone-like object flew near one ship, Japan said.
It was the first such flight near the islands witnessed by Japanese officials, although the incident took to 13 the number of intrusions this year by Chinese coastguard ships in the contested waters, Japan’s coastguard said.
Japan and China have long been at loggerheads over the tiny, uninhabited islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. They are controlled by Japan but claimed also by China.
“This is escalating the situation and absolutely unacceptable,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told a news conference on Friday, referring to the incursion and drone flight.
“We regard this as a serious infringement of Japan’s sovereignty.”
Inada said two F-15 fighter jets, one E-2C early warning aircraft and an AWACS surveillance plane were sent to the scene.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the drone had been released by “relevant media” for aerial photography, rather than by the coast guard, but did not name the organization.
“This is not a military action as has been hyped up by some media,” Hua told a daily news briefing.
Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, lodged a stern protest with the Chinese embassy in Tokyo by telephone, a ministry official said.
The Chinese embassy responded to the protest by reiterating China’s stance on the islands, the official added.
China routinely rejects Japanese criticism of such patrols, saying its ships have every right to operate in what China calls its territorial waters.