Fresh after nearly hitting a U.S. plane off the coast of China last week, the Chinese air force has staged an additional high-risk stunt. Two aircraft from the mainland twice entered Taiwan’s airspace on Tuesday, Taiwan’s defense minister told Bloomberg News. China, which continues to harbor ambitions of reuniting the island with the mainland, has more than 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan, so it’s no small thing for People’s Liberation Army planes to buzz Taiwanese airspace.
Fortunately, this incident ended peacefully, with Taiwanese fighter jets “asking them to leave,” Defense Minister Yen Ming said. The Aug. 19 confrontation between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft also ended without a crash, though the U.S. said China’s plane came within 20 feet of the Boeing (BA) P-8 Poseidon submarine surveillance aircraft.
Having already raised tensions in the region, China is further signaling that the government of President Xi Jinping is determined to counter what it sees as a U.S.-led effort to contain it. While the Chinese have been trying to intimidate neighbors for a while—building man-made islands in the South China Sea, for instance, and ratcheting up tensions with Japan in the East China Sea—the timing of the recent aircraft incidents is not coincidental. A delegation from China is visiting the U.S. to hold long-scheduled talks on a code of conduct for international waters and airspace, the official China Daily reported on Wednesday.
Amid those meetings, China is using its planes to send a blunt message to the Obama administration: Cut out spying so close to us. The Chinese have long resented U.S. spying in the area. It’s easy to forget, but until the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, the biggest foreign policy crisis the Bush Administration faced that year was a showdown with China over a U.S. spy plane’s collision with a Chinese plane near Hainan, the island province off China’s southern coast. A Chinese pilot died in the accident and China held two dozen American crew members of the grounded U.S. plane captive for a week.
Thirteen years later, China’s economy is much bigger and its military much stronger, but the U.S. hasn’t stopped the surveillance flights. The Chinese are now saying the spying must end. The Pentagon’s statement about the Chinese fighter jet’s provocative move near the American plane is “totally groundless,” according to a Xinhua report quoting Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun. As far as China is concerned, the guilty party here is the U.S. and its “massive and frequent close-in surveillance of China.”