US accuses Chinese fighter jet of ‘unsafe manoeuvre’ that risked

A Chinese fighter jet flew within 6 metres of a US military aircraft in the South China Sea earlier this month, the latest in a series of encounters that Washington and its allies have warned are risky, unprofessional and increasingly frequent.

The incident, which occurred on December 21 but was disclosed late on Thursday, highlighted the danger of inadvertent conflict as economic and geopolitical competition between the US and China fuels tensions.

A J-11 Chinese navy jet “performed an unsafe manoeuvre during an intercept of a US Air Force RC-135 aircraft, which was lawfully conducting routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace”, the US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that included video footage of the encounter.

The Chinese pilot flew “within 20ft of the nose of the RC-135”, forcing the US plane to take evasive manoeuvres, the statement added.

The incident followed accusations by the US that People’s Liberation Army pilots have engaged in increasingly reckless behaviour in the region. China, which claims most of the South China Sea as well as Taiwan, frequently claims the US is endangering peace in the region. Washington argues its military operations uphold the international rules-based order against threats and coercion.

In July, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told the Financial Times that China had become more aggressive in intercepting military aircraft from the US and its allies including Japan. US defence secretary Lloyd Austin raised that concern in a meeting with Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe in November.

In June, Australia said a Chinese fighter flew close to a reconnaissance aircraft the previous month and released metal chaff which was sucked into the plane’s engine. Canada also accused Chinese fighters of harassing its aircraft monitoring evasions of sanctions against North Korea.

The growing friction comes as a combination of rapidly growing Chinese military capabilities and Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy stance unsettles several of its neighbours and the US.

On December 21, the day of the latest incident, China’s two aircraft carriers were conducting large-scale exercises, one in the South China Sea and the other in the Philippine Sea. China’s air force was also flying bomber and fighter sorties and practising aerial refuelling in the airspace above the Bashi Channel, the straits south of Taiwan that link the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea.

According to government and military officials in two Asian countries, the intercept occurred while the PLA was conducting joint naval-air exercises in the South China Sea. “As part of that exercise, a strike group led by the Shandong [aircraft carrier] simulated attacks on a US Navy formation,” one of the officials said.

The US Indo-Pacific Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Chinese defence ministry did not answer calls seeking comment.

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