The US has said that it was reviewing the “unsafe” intercept of one of its spy plane by two Chinese fighter jets in international airspace over the disputed South China Sea to decide an “appropriate response”.
“The Department of Defence is reviewing public claims of a May 17 intercept of a US maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft by two tactical aircraft from the People’s Republic of China,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
“The incident occurred in international airspace during a routine US patrol in the South China Sea. Initial reports of the incident characterised it as unsafe,” he told reporters.
The incident comes more than a decade after a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US spy plane in 2001 in which a Chinese pilot was killed and the US jet was forced to make an emergency landing on the Chinese province of Hainan.
Earnest, however, appeared to downplay the incident saying that the two countries have made progress in reducing the risk of conflict by improving dialogue at multiple levels.
“We’ve reduced that risk by improving dialogue at multiple levels under the bilateral confidence building measures, and the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement,” he said.
He said the next military maritime consultative agreement talks were scheduled for May 24 and 25 in Hawaii.
Over the last one year, the Department of Defence has seen improvements in the way Chinese military pilots fly, consistent with the international guidelines and in a safe and professional manner, the White House Press Secretary said.
The Pentagon said the intercept of the US Navy EP-3 in the South China Sea happened in international airspace about 100 nautical miles south of mainland China and about 50 nautical miles east of Hainan Island.
“… there were two Chinese aircraft that approached and our air crew felt that the approach was not conducted in a safe and professional manner,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said.
“So that’s the concern that we have and that’s what’s being reviewed at this time,” he said adding that the US will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever the international law allows.
Cook said the Pentagon was confident that “our crew was conducting this, again, in international airspace as allowed under international law”.
“We’ll review this incident to determine whether or not there needs to be an appropriate response,” he said.
The State Department said such a move by China increases tension in the region.
“They’re not doing anything to lessen tensions and to do anything to decrease the possibility for miscalculations and perhaps put people in real harm’s way. So we absolutely share the concerns that were expressed by the Defence Department about these maneuvers,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
He refrained from giving specific diplomatic conversations between the two countries on this issue. “This is something that we routinely have raised in the past when it’s happened, and I’m quite certain that we’ll continue to raise our concerns about this going forward,” Kirby said.