China on Tuesday denied its fighter jet pilots operated dangerously during an encounter with a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace in which the American pilot took evasive action to avoid a possible collision.
Spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in a statement on the Defence Ministry’s microblog that the performance of the pilots of the two J-10 fighters was “legal, necessary and professional”.
Mr. Ren criticised frequent close-in surveillance runs by U.S. planes as raising the chance of accidents, saying such missions “threatened China’s national security, harmed China-U.S. sea-air military safety, endangered the safety of pilots from the two sides and were the root cause of China-U.S. sea-air unexpected incidents”.
The U.S. should stop such “unsafe, unprofessional and unfriendly military activities,” Mr. Ren said, in a repetition of China’s standard policy toward U.S. surveillance missions intended at collecting Chinese computer and voice data in hopes of gaining insight into the workings of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Asked about the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing objected to such missions but remained “committed to building military mutual trust with other countries”.
U.S. Navy Captian Jeff Davis said the Chinese fighters intercepted the U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane on Sunday in international airspace between the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, in an area he described as west of the Korean Peninsula.
China in 2013 declared an air defence identification zone over a partly contested portion of the East China Sea, demanding foreign aircraft declare their presence and follow Chinese orders.
The U.S. and others swiftly dismissed the zone as invalid and have largely ignored it. It wasn’t clear if Sunday’s encounter took place inside the zone.
Agreement in place
Such incidents continue to occur despite an agreement between the two sides to prevent them from sparking an international crisis, as happened in April 2001 when a Chinese jet fighter collided with a U.S. EP-3. That led to the death of the Chinese pilot and China’s detention of the U.S. air crew for 10 days after their crippled plane landed at a PLA air base in Hainan.
While China has long chafed at U.S. surveillance operations targeting its military, the PLA itself has been conducting such missions further and further from its home ports.