When you include aerial close encounters of allies and partners, the number rises to nearly 300, they said.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon released previously nonpublic videos and photos of more than a dozen such maneuvers over the East and South China seas, reviewed by The Washington Post, in which Chinese fighter jets harassed unarmed U.S. reconnaissance planes patrolling lawfully in international airspace.
In January, an American RC-135 was flying above the South China Sea when a Chinese J-11 fighter jet, flashing two missiles on each wing, rapidly closed to about 30 feet and lingered for more than 15 minutes.
In May last year, a Chinese fighter sped toward a Navy EP-3 spy plane patrolling in the East China Sea and, according to the Pentagon, crossed under the aircraft’s nose, causing the American pilot to lose visual contact. It then re-approached at 15 feet laterally and, as shown in a video, flew just below the U.S. plane.
In yet another incident, a Chinese fighter jet repeatedly flew above and below a U.S. reconnaissance jet, displaying its weapons, in June 2022. When the American pilot made contact on his radio with the Chinese fighter, the latter responded in English, according to the Pentagon, with “F— off.”
“It’s harassment — pure and simple,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former fighter pilot who ran air operations in the Pacific in the mid-2000s. He decried the close approaches, which could lead to a misjudgment and a collision. “There’s absolutely no call for that in international airspace.”
Deptula recalled how a Chinese fighter jet collided with a Navy EP-3 in April 2001, killing the Chinese pilot and causing the U.S. aircraft with 24 crew members to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, resulting in an international incident. The Americans were detained and interrogated for 11 days by Chinese authorities before being released. That incident is seared in the memories of U.S. military aviators, highlighting the tragic consequences that can result from aggressive and unprofessional airmanship.
The marked rise in risky Chinese encounters is troubling because it undercuts the ability of the United States and other nations to safely conduct patrols in international airspace, top military and defense officials say.
“Since the fall of 2021, we have seen serious increases in actions that took their aircraft much closer” to U.S. planes, including during “higher risk” operations like air-to-air refueling, said Adm. John C. Aquilino, a graduate of the Navy’s “Top Gun” advanced fighter school and now commander of all U.S. military forces in the Indo-Pacific.
Allies and partners are experiencing similar aggression, he said. Last year, a Chinese J-16 fighter cut across the nose of an Australian P-8 patrol plane and released a round of chaff that was ingested by the P-8’s jet engine.
“Those actions are just unacceptable,” Aquilino said. “And they’re not in accordance with international law.”
In a statement that obliquely referred to the United States, Chinese Embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said, “[A] certain non-regional country has sought to stir up trouble and incite confrontation in the South China Sea and jeopardize regional peace and stability. China has always opposed that.” He said that China and Southeast Asian countries are seeking to develop a “code of conduct in the South China Sea” and that “countries outside the region need to respect [those] efforts.”
China’s bolder behavior, analysts and officials say, is an apparent effort to get the U.S. military to back down in a region that Beijing seeks to dominate. It comes as part of a wider push to counter what China views as an unwelcome expansion under the Biden administration of military and security coordination by Washington and its allies in the region.
In the past two years, Washington has elevated to the leader level the “Quad” security partnership with Australia, Japan and India, widely seen as a counterweight to Beijing. It has also enhanced its alliance with Japan — which is buying U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles and developing its own counterstrike capability — and brought South Korea into a trilateral security relationship among the three countries. The Biden administration has expanded access to military bases in the Philippines, including several in the north close to Taiwan, and sealed a deal with Australia and Britain to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
Rattled by China, U.S. and allies are beefing up defenses in the Pacific
“What you’re seeing with all of these activities is a serial game of chicken,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. “This is pure intimidation on the part of China. They are trying to raise the risk and cost of conducting operations over territory in the vicinity of what they consider to be their area of influence.”
Said Aquilino: “Just so we’re clear. … The pressure we’re seeing is only from the [People’s Republic of China]. Their objective is … to force the United States out of the region. And that’s just not gonna happen.”
The release of images and videos comes as the Pentagon prepares to unveil its annual report on China’s military power. Last year’s highlighted a “sharp increase” in unsafe and unprofessional behavior by the Chinese military in the Indo-Pacific region. This year’s will note just how dramatic that increase has been in international airspace over the past two years — a spike, the Pentagon says, that puts regional stability at risk.
China’s military is far more powerful today than it was a decade or two ago. And though the push to modernize its armed forces began in the 1990s, it has picked up steam over the past decade, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s rise to power and stepped up aggressive and coercive actions in the region.
During the Biden administration, the Chinese military has rebuffed every attempt by top Pentagon officials to engage in dialogue. In the past, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was able to raise concerns about its operational behavior with his then-counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe. By early this year, that cooperation had ceased, officials said.
When a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Chinese spy balloon in February that had apparently sought to surveil military bases in the continental United States, Wei refused to take a call from Austin. Wei’s successor, Gen. Li Shangfu, who reportedly faces a corruption investigation and has not been seen in public since late August, has declined every invitation to meet with Austin, officials said.
Chinese balloon part of vast aerial surveillance program, U.S. says
U.S. Navy and Air Force surveillance planes flying within international airspace have a legal right to patrol, just as Chinese planes do, experts note. But they must do so safely.
The United States and China signed a memorandum of understanding in 2014 spelling out rules of safe behavior in air and maritime encounters; it was updated in 2015. The Chinese pilots’ behavior in the videos violates the agreement, which makes clear that military aircraft should ensure “safe separation” and avoid “reckless maneuvers” as well as “actions that impinge upon the ability of the other side’s military aircraft to maneuver safely.” Releasing objects like chaff fall into that latter category, military officials say.
“On a number of different levels, we’re seeing more aggressive operations by the PLA reflecting their increased military capability, greater confidence in conducting operations and a more bellicose foreign policy by Xi Jinping,” said Thomas Shugart, an independent military analyst and former analyst in the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, using the abbreviation for China’s People’s Liberation Army.
China, he notes, has advanced an “expansive claim” that it has the right to regulate military and economic activity within a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone beyond its territorial seas that includes airspace. The claim is not recognized by the United States, he said.
Last month, China’s military sent more than 100 fighter jets and nine ships into the Taiwan Strait on a single day, marking the largest such incursion in three years as Beijing escalates its threats against Taiwan, an island democracy China claims as its own. Forty of the aircraft crossed the “median line,” an unofficial sea border between Taiwan and China that had helped maintain stability for years in the 110-mile-wide strait.
Beijing has increasingly ignored the median line, sending sorties closer to Taiwan, using “gray zone” tactics — short of acts of war — intended to exhaust and intimidate Taiwan’s smaller military.
The increased tempo of China’s unsafe intercepts is “very concerning,” said Jacqueline Deal, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “because they are likely trying to inure the United States and Taiwan” to aggressive operations and make it more difficult to discern “when an exercise is turning into a first act of a war.”
Regardless of the PLA’s behavior, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Ely Ratner said in a statement to The Post, “we’re going to continue flying, sailing and operating wherever international law allows.”