A Chinese fighter jet flew aggressively close to a US reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea, “buzzing” it during a hazardous mid-air encounter, the Pentagon has announced. The Chinese J-16 fighter pilot “flew directly in front of the nose of the RC-135” as it conducted routine operations in international airspace on Friday, US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement in which it branded the Chinese move an “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre”.
US defence chiefs have accused China’s military of becoming significantly more belligerent over the course of the last five years, regularly intercepting US aircraft and ships in the region.
Tensions with China have spiked in recent months as a result of Washington’s military support and sales of defensive weapons to self-governing Taiwan, China’s assertions of sovereignty to the contested South China Sea and its flying of a suspected spy balloon over the US.
In a further indication of rising tensions, China said its defence chief will not meet with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when the pair attend a security conference in Singapore this coming weekend.
Austin is scheduled to address the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday, while Chinese Defense Minister General Li Shangfu will speak at the gathering the following day.
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Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said China informed the US that it was declining Austin’s invitation to meet while they were at the conference.
He said Beijing’s “concerning unwillingness to engage in meaningful military-to-military discussions” will not diminish the Defense Department’s commitment to seeking open lines of communication with the Chinese army.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning on Tuesday blamed the US, saying Washington should “earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and security interests and concerns, immediately correct the wrongdoing, show sincerity, and create the necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between the two militaries”.
In a visit to the Indo-Pacific last summer, US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the number of intercepts by Chinese aircraft and ships in the Pacific region with US and other partner forces has increased significantly over that time, and the number of unsafe interactions has risen by similar proportions.
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China frequently challenges military aircraft from the US and its allies, including those of the UK, especially over the strategically vital South China Sea, which China claims in its entirety.
Such behaviour led to a 2001 in-air collision in which a Chinese plane was lost and pilot killed.
Beijing deeply resents the presence of US military assets in that region, and regularly demands that American ships and planes leave the area.
In the statement issued yesterday, the US Indo-Pacific Command said America will continue to “fly, sail, and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international law allows,” and expected all other countries to do the same.