A Chinese fighter jet in international waters buzzed a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft within 20 feet and did a barrel roll over it in what the White House called a provocation.
The Aug. 19 incident took place about 135 miles (217 kilometers) east of Hainan Island, the southernmost tip of China, amid international tensions over China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims. U.S. and Chinese planes have had several close encounters over the sea since March.
“It’s obviously a deeply concerning provocation,” Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters yesterday in a briefing on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where Obama is on vacation. “We’ve made our concerns known directly to Beijing.”
“What we’ve encouraged is constructive military-to-military ties with China,” Rhodes said. “This type of action clearly violates the spirit of that engagement.”
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in an e-mail that he couldn’t comment on the allegations because he didn’t have details.
“At the same time,” he said, “it has to be pointed out that allegations of similar incidents in recent years all occurred over the coastal waters of China, not those of the United States.”
The Chinese J-11 fighter passed the P-8 Poseidon at 90 degrees, with its belly toward the U.S. aircraft to show off its weapons, according to a U.S. Defense Department statement. The maneuver left the Chinese pilot unable to see the American aircraft, “further increasing the potential for a collision,” the Pentagon said.
The Chinese pilot then flew directly under and alongside the P-8, bringing their wingtips within 20 feet (6 meters), and did a barrel roll over the P-8, passing within 45 feet before stabilizing his fighter, the Pentagon said.
“Military activities may be conducted within the Exclusive Economic Zone of another nation as an exercise of the freedoms of navigation and overflight,” the Pentagon said in reference to the U.S. plane’s proximity to China.
The P-8, made by Chicago-based Boeing Co., is the Navy’s newest surveillance aircraft, deployed to the Pacific as part of a U.S. strategic shift to Asia.
The most serious encounter between a Chinese fighter and U.S. aircraft was an April 2001 collision with a Navy EP-3 surveillance plane. It resulted in the first diplomatic crisis of President George W. Bush’s administration after the U.S. aircraft made an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea under a map first published in 1947, a territory that extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines.