The United States says Chinese jets exhibited "dangerous behavior" when they intercepted a U.S. military plane in international airspace Tuesday over the South China Sea.
A State Department spokesman said Thursday that Chinese authorities were "not doing anything to decrease the possibility for miscalculations and perhaps put people in real harm's way."
The Pentagon said the two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane that was on a routine patrol. Beijing disputed Washington's version of events, insisting that its jets operated responsibly in monitoring the U.S. plane.
“The two Chinese fighter jets tracked and monitored [the U.S. plane] in accordance with the law and regulations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, adding that the jets “continually kept a safe distance and did not take any dangerous actions.”
China demanded that Washington immediately cease close surveillance flights along the country’s coast, saying they posed a serious threat to Chinese airspace.
The incident came as President Barack Obama is preparing to embark on a historic trip to the region, during which he will become the first president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, site of a U.S. atomic bomb attack during World War II. It was the world's first such strike.
Obama also will visit former wartime foe Vietnam for the first time.
Concerns have been growing in the region over China’s aggressive approach to its territorial claims, especially those in disputed waters in the South China Sea. It has been quickly moving to build up massive artificial islands, complete with airstrips and military facilities.
In the coming weeks, a ruling is expected in an international case the Philippines has lodged against Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.
China, which has refused to participate in the court case, is in the midst of a massive public relations campaign to try to build support for its position before the ruling. Beijing argues territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be handled bilaterally by claimants and not through what it regards as international intervention.
But based on what Chinese authorities have said in response, this week's air intercept incident appears to be more related to a long-standing dispute over military surveillance flights off China’s coast. Beijing has long complained about the surveillance flights and demanded they stop.
William Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, said based on what the Chinese have said, the incident "was kind of near Hainan Island. We are not really exactly sure how near or far it is. Then, it is kind of like the long-standing disagreement [between] the U.S. and China with regards to access of foreign military vessels and aircraft into Chinese maritime areas, and so it's not a South China Sea issue per se.”
In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. patrol plane off the coast of Hainan. The plane’s crew of 24 was forced to make an emergency landing on the island. A Chinese pilot was killed during the collision, and the incident prompted a major diplomatic crisis.