On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby shocked the press when he revealed that an American Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese fighter in what he described as a “very dangerous, very unprofessional” situation.
“On three different occasions, the Chinese J-11 crossed directly under the US aircraft with one pass having only 50-100 feet separation between the two aircraft,” Kirby revealed.
“The Chinese jet also passed the nose of the P-8 at 90 degrees with its belly toward the P-8 to show its weapons load out. In doing so, the [Chinese] pilot was unable to see the P-8, 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 and then, before he stabilized his fighter he conducted a roll over the P-8 passing within 45 feet.”
Over the weekend, in response to what American officials called a “provocation,” the United States dispatched a second aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, to the Pacific region. The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill Gertz has more:
The Carl Vinson strike group will patrol “both 5th and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility,” the Navy statement said The 7th fleet covers the Pacific and the 5th Fleet is responsible for operations in the Middle East.
The guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and three guided missile destroyers, the USS Gridley, USS Sterett, and USS Dewey also deployed with the Vinson.
The Vinson will join the Japan-based USS George Washington strike group.
Officials in Beijing have criticized America’s strong condemnation of the actions of Chinese pilots. During the encounter between a P-8 and a Chinese J-11 fighter 135 miles off the coast of Hainan Island, China insists that its pilots performed standard identification procedures before approaching the American aircraft. A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman called America’s accusations “totally groundless.”
The Pentagon stuck by its condemnation of the encounter, but unnamed officials told The Wall Street Journal over the weekend that the dangerous encounters with Chinese pilots could be the actions of “rogue” elements.
U.S. officials aren’t sure why the incidents keep taking place in the same general location, and said the midair encounters may be attributable to a rogue pilot or group of pilots in a squadron responsible for intercepts in the South China Sea.
These officials said they don’t believe the aggressive flying was directly authorized by the Chinese military.
“The Chinese are trying to be more active in establishing good quality military-to-military relations. There’s just something different and unique about what’s going on in the South China Sea,” a senior U.S. official said. “Something’s out of whack.”
That’s comforting. Rogue pilots or no, a catastrophic midair collision between American and Chinese aircraft would spark a potentially disastrous international incident. This episode is certain to heighten tensions between the two powers. Moreover, the implication from unnamed American officials that Beijing cannot control its own pilots is sure to produce even more goodwill towards the United States.