The US and Chinese militaries have released conflicting accounts of what both sides said was an unsafe and unprofessional aerial encounter over the South China Sea, in the latest example of competition in the information space.
The Hawaii-based US Indo-Pacific Command released images last Thursday showing a Chinese navy J-11 fighter jet intercepting a US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane. , which was “lawfully conducting routine operations” on December 21 in international airspace.
“The [People’s Liberation Army Navy] the pilot performed an unsafe maneuver by flying in front of and within 20 feet of the RC-135’s nose, forcing the RC-135 to perform evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision,” the statement said. The attached video shows both planes approaching. together before drifting further apart.
China’s response came on Saturday. In a Defense Ministry statement attributed to the PLA’s Southern Theater Command, he said the US had “deliberately misled public opinion”.
The US Air Force RC-135 “performed intentional close reconnaissance in the vicinity of the southern coast of China and the Xisha Islands,” it said, using the Chinese term for the disputed Paracel Islands, which are controlled by Beijing but also claimed by Vietnam. .
The PLA Navy J-11 was sent to intercept the US plane, according to the statement. “During the process, disregarding the Chinese pilot’s repeated warnings, the US aircraft abruptly changed its flight attitude and forced the Chinese aircraft to turn to the left.”
Chinese video of the incident showed both planes approaching each other before diverging again. None of the clips seemed to conclusively support either Washington’s or Beijing’s version of events, though much more agile fast planes are generally expected to exercise more caution in such cases.
In 2022, the US and its allies began to paint a picture of a Chinese military that was tremendously bold in asserting Beijing’s territorial claims, to the point of risking accidents.
In February, a Chinese warship targeted an Australian reconnaissance plane with a high-powered laser as it sailed off northern Australia, Canberra said. In May, one of China’s J-16 fighters intercepted an Australian military plane over the South China Sea, releasing radar-jamming metal fragments that entered its engine.
Separately, Ottawa accused Chinese military planes of harassing Canadian planes in the East China Sea, where they had been deployed to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea.
In each of the cases, Beijing defended the behavior of its forces as professional and safe. China’s Foreign Ministry said its pilots had “exercised the utmost restraint” in light of what it called constant reconnaissance off the Chinese coast.
In recent months, potentially dangerous air and sea encounters, which could trigger an accidental conflict amid rising tensions, have been raised in private meetings between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart. The Biden administration also spent two years reestablishing crisis communication hotlines with Beijing.
Both sides will be anxious to avoid a repeat of the 2001 Hainan Island incident, when a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese J-8 jet, resulting in the loss of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, known for “cowboy manoeuvres”.
The interception of US aircraft by potential adversaries, and vice versa, has remained a common practice since the Cold War, and serious incidents like the one in Hainan two decades ago are exceedingly rare.
For policymakers, however, the publication of details about otherwise classified military operations serves the purposes of public affairs and public diplomacy, telling audiences at home and abroad the principles behind each mission, as well as the associated risks. . As Ukraine’s proactive intelligence disclosures have shown, winning the narrative war is key to securing international support.
As the US and China compete in multiple domains, control of the information space becomes increasingly important. In the hotly contested South China Sea, for example, Washington continues to assert freedom of navigation and overflight, while Beijing seeks an end to the US military presence in the region.
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