China Is Creating Drama in the South China Sea: Even for hotshot pilots, there is such a thing as “too close for comfort.”
That was likely the case for the crew of a United States Air Force RC-135 that was flying over the South China Sea when a Chinese Shenyang J-11 (NATO reporting name “Flanker-B”) came within mere feet of the U.S. craft.
Though Chinese pilots have been accused of conducting “unsafe maneuvers” in the past, the encounter last week could be rightfully described as reckless.
According to the United States Indo-Pacific Command, the twin-engine jet fighter – which was derived from the Soviet-designed Sukhoi Su-27 and manufactured domestically in China – had flown in front of and then within 20 feet of the nose of the U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.
A South China Sea Showdown?
The incident occurred on December 21. The U.S. pilot was flying lawfully over the South China Sea when the U.S. aircraft was forced to “take evasive maneuvers” to avoid a collision. Neither pilot has been identified.
Video of the incident has been widely shared online, providing a genuinely up-close-and-personal view of the J-11 fighter.
In the clip, the Chinese fighter can be seen slowly coming closer and closer to the U.S. RC-135, which was forced to decrease its altitude in order to avoid a collision.
U.S. officials have said from the position of the Chinese aircraft it is unlikely its pilot could have safely even seen the RC-135.
“The U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force is dedicated to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and will continue to fly, sail and operate at sea and in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” officials said. “We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law.”
Last week’s incident came as relations between the U.S. and China remain tense over a number of issues, including the Biden administration’s support for Taiwan as China continues to assert territorial claims over the island, which has been governed independently since 1949.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) also conducted a number of exercises this month; while over the past weekend Beijing launched a record number of aircraft toward the self-ruling island.
Such close calls have become all too common, and during an address at the Shangri-La Dialogue this past summer U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that there was an “alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA [People’s Liberation Army] aircraft and vessels.”
Beijing has not responded to last week’s incident, but China has said that the United States sending ships and aircraft into the South China Sea is not good for peace.
China has laid claim to vast swathes of the waters of the South China Sea, including territory that overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Washington doesn’t recognize China’s territorial claims.
It asserts that countries, under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, should have freedom of navigation through exclusive economic zones in the sea.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.