Unlike previous close encounters between United States and Chinese military aircraft, the latest incident last week near the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal appears to be unintentional, highlighting risks in an increasingly militarized region.
A Navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane was on a routine mission when a Chinese KJ-200 turboprop—which is equipped with radar mounted on top of the fuselage—crossed its nose within 1,000 feet (305 meters), causing it to make an immediate turn, Pentagon Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said.
He said both planes were in “normal radio contact.”
“Clearly, we have our disagreements with China over militarization of South China Sea,” Davis said, adding, however, that interactions between ships and planes are “largely professional and safe”.
The Chinese Defense Ministry did not comment, but the Communist Party-run Global Times quoted an unidentified ministry official as saying the Chinese pilot had responded in a “legal and professional manner”.
Such encounters are not unusual in an area China claims virtually in totality despite neighbors’ rival claims and the US insistence on safeguarding unimpeded navigation at sea and in the air. Twice last year US and Chinese aircraft came close, in one instance to within 50 feet (15 meters), of each other. In August 2014 a Chinese fighter jet came within 30 feet (9 meters) of a Navy P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance plane off Hainan Island—a major military hub—and pulled a series of risky maneuvers, including rolling over it.
The US and China in 2015 signed rules of behavior for safety of air-to-air encounters, but some analysts say they don’t go far enough.
The location of the latest incident is significant. China seized the tiny, uninhabited shoal, which lies within the Philippines’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels in 2012. The Philippines initiated international arbitration, which last year invalidated China’s claims to most of the South China Sea. Beijing refused to recognize the ruling, and despite warming ties with Beijing, the Philippines worries whether China will build military installations on the shoal similar to what it did on seven other features farther south in the Spratlys.
Emphasis on diplomacy
China has found common ground in US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s call for diplomacy instead of military action to resolve differences over South China Sea disputes.
But Chinese Foreign Wang Yi did not comment on the second part of Mattis’s statement in which he pledged more freedom of navigation operations by US warships close to Chinese-held islands that Beijing has criticized.
On a visit to Australia, Wang said Beijing has attached “great importance” to Mattis’s recent statement “stressing diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute over South China Sea”.
“Any sober-minded politician will recognize that there cannot be conflict between China and the United States,” Wang told reporters. “Both will lose and both sides cannot afford that.”
Talk about a possible military confrontation between China and the US in the South China Seas surfaced after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments during his Senate confirmation hearing that Washington should block China’s access to its artificial islands, although many believed he misspoke.
Wang said the US should read up on World War II and South China Sea history. “It’s with the aid of the United States that the Chinese government of that day recovered the Nansha Islands in 1946 publicly and legally,” he said, using the Chinese name for Spratly Islands.
Under the 1952 peace treaty, Japan renounced sovereignty over the Spratlys and the Paracels, but Vietnam and the Philippines also lay their claims to the islands.
China builds up facilities
Satellite imagery provided by the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CISS) purportedly shows an upgrade of military facilities in Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
China occupies 20 outposts in the Paracels, roughly the same distance from Chinese and
Vietnamese shores, including the main base on Woody Island, which is also the administrative center for the South China Sea. According to the think tank, China has undertaken substantial land reclamation in the last few years to link Woody with its small neighbor Rocky Island, expand two sheltered harbors, an air base and four larger hangers.
CSIS said in early last year, China deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles and they still appear to be deployed on Woody. China also test-fired antiship cruise missiles from Woody in the middle of the last year, CSIS reported. The island deve-lopment has been used as a blueprint for building the largest military facilities in the Spratlys, on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs.
Four other islands have been equipped with smaller harbors, and a fifth is under construction at Drummond Island. Five of the islands contain helipads, with Duncan Island housing a full helicopter base, CSIS said. The presence of a cement plant on North Island
suggests construction will continue in the Paracels, it said.
Scientists explore sea
Dozens of scientists from the US, China, European and other countries in Hong Kong boarded the American drilling research ship Joides Resolution—dubbed the “floating laboratory”—to collect sediments in the seafloor and explore the formation of the South China Sea. The two expeditions over two months each will study the Earth’s crust by drilling at a depth of up to 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) in the northern edge of the South China Sea.
China joined similar expeditions in 1999 and 2014.