The skies over the Pacific Ocean have once again become a theater of concern as a Chinese fighter jet engaged in a highly dangerous maneuver, flying within 10 feet of an American B-52 bomber operating in international airspace.
The incident took place on Tuesday, October 24, and US military officials have expressed their alarm, stating that the pilot’s reckless actions risked causing a mid-air collision, a situation that could have had dire consequences.
A Risky Encounter: The Close Call in the South China Sea
Video footage released by US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) provides a chilling visual of the event.
In it, the Chinese J-11 fighter can be seen rapidly approaching the B-52, passing in front of and below the American jet’s wing over the South China Sea. Furthermore, this encounter occurred at night, adding a layer of complexity and danger to the situation.
“We are concerned this pilot was unaware of how close he came to causing a collision,” INDOPACOM said in a statement.
Retired Air Force fighter pilot Charlie “Tuna” Moore, now a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, described to The Washington Post the incident as “a dangerous move—too close and completely unprofessional.”
A Clear Rebuke: China’s Assertive Behavior
This incident is not an isolated one but rather part of a worrying trend of unsafe Chinese air intercepts that the Pentagon has been monitoring for the past year and a half.
The US military has expressed concern about these coercive maneuvers, and they underscore the pressing need for effective communication channels between military forces to prevent such dangerous encounters.
#USINDOPACOM Statement on #PRC Unprofessional Intercept: "A People’s Republic of China J-11 pilot executed an unsafe intercept of a U.S. Air Force B-52 aircraft which was lawfully conducting routine operations over the South China Sea…"
— U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (@INDOPACOM) October 26, 2023
The hazardous incident, which risked the lives of those on board both the Chinese fighter jet and the American bomber, is a troubling reminder of the perils that can arise in high-stakes situations over international waters.
With tensions between the United States and China remaining high, this encounter is not just a simple near miss but a clear rebuke from Beijing, according to experts.
It signals that China is unwilling to back down, even in the face of international concerns about its military’s behavior.
China’s Growing Assertiveness: A Broader Trend
China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and its aggressive military posturing in the broader Pacific region have raised alarms in Washington and among US allies.
The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military power, released last week, highlighted the growing number of such encounters between Chinese military aircraft and American planes.
In the past two years, Chinese military aircraft have conducted over 180 risky intercepts of American spy planes, a figure that has already surpassed the total for the entire previous decade.
When similar encounters with US allies and partners are included, the total number exceeds 300.
A High-Stakes Power Play: China’s Strategic Ambitions
This more assertive behavior from China is seen as an attempt to assert dominance in the region, especially the South China Sea, a vital maritime corridor that hosts a significant portion of the world’s trade and has been a source of territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries.
The US has been vocal about defending the principle of freedom of navigation in these waters and opposing any attempts to establish exclusive zones of control.
The recent incident is a concerning escalation in the ongoing tensions, as it clearly demonstrates China’s unwillingness to heed international calls for restraint and adherence to air safety norms.
It also underscores the urgency of establishing effective lines of communication between the US and Chinese military forces to avoid misunderstandings and accidental conflicts in the region.
Diplomacy and Dialogue: A Path to Conflict Prevention
For the US, maintaining open lines of communication with China is crucial, especially during encounters in international airspace or waters.
Clear and direct communication can help prevent accidents and misunderstandings that could potentially escalate into more significant conflicts. The need for this communication has been highlighted repeatedly, and the United States has sought to establish military-to-military communication channels with China in the past.
However, these attempts have been repeatedly rebuffed by Beijing, adding to the challenges of managing these high-stakes situations.
Diplomatic Efforts Amid High-Level Meetings
The timing of this incident is particularly noteworthy.
China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, was in Washington for meetings with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. These discussions are seen as a prelude to an expected bilateral summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden, which is set to take place next month in San Francisco.
One of the primary topics of discussion during these high-level meetings is likely to be the stalled military communications between the two nations.
The Danger of Limited Visibility: Expert Insights
Experts like Moore emphasize the dangers these encounters pose when Chinese fighter jets venture out of sight of US pilots.
The limited visibility and the potential for unexpected maneuvers can exponentially increase the risk of a collision.
Additionally, when a smaller fighter jet flies extremely close to a larger aircraft, it can encounter wake turbulence, which could further elevate the risk of a collision.
The Pentagon’s report on China’s military power and these incidents serve as a stark reminder of the importance of diplomacy and dialogue in managing international disputes.
The incidents involving Chinese military aircraft and their unsafe maneuvers near American planes are not isolated events but part of a broader pattern that reflects China’s strategic ambitions and its quest for dominance in the Pacific region.
The 2001 Collision
In the past, such incidents have escalated into international crises.
For example, in April 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US Navy EP-3 aircraft, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot and forcing the US aircraft to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
This incident resulted in a tense standoff between the two countries, with American crew members detained and interrogated by Chinese authorities for 11 days before their release.
To prevent such incidents from spiraling out of control and endangering international peace and security, it is imperative that the US and China engage in diplomatic efforts to establish effective communication channels and rules of engagement for encounters in international airspace and waters.
As major global powers, both nations have a responsibility to prioritize safety and conflict prevention in their military operations.
In conclusion, the recent incident involving a Chinese fighter jet’s unsafe maneuver near an American B-52 bomber is a stark reminder of the ongoing tensions in the Pacific region.
It underscores the urgent need for effective communication channels between the US and China to prevent misunderstandings, accidents, and potential conflicts. As high-level diplomatic meetings between the two nations continue, addressing these concerns should be a top priority to maintain international peace and stability in this strategically important region.