Culture, particularly through movies and television, could be considered the United States’ most influential export.  Our movies and shows find their way into just about every market, and shape the perceptions the world has of our nation, and of themselves.  It would seem that, at least in the case of one Chinese fighter pilot, “Top Gun” was among his films of choice.

Two Chinese Su-30 fighters intercepted a radiation detection plane employed by the U.S. Air Force over the East China Sea on Wednesday, before one of them executing a maneuver made famous by Maverick in the 1986 film, “Top Gun.”  As the two fighters intercepted the unarmed aircraft, one of them went inverted, flying above the U.S. plane upside down, in a move the U.S. crew referred to as “unprofessional.”

Image courtesy of the Financial Express

“While we are still investigating the incident, initial reports from the U.S. aircrew characterized the intercept as unprofessional. The issue is being addressed with China through appropriate diplomatic and military channels,” Air Force Lt. Col. Hodge said in a statement to the press.

The Chinese fighter reportedly came to within 150 feet of the surveillance plane, all the while flying inverted above the American’s heads.

“We would rather discuss it privately with China,” Hodge said in an email to The Associated Press. “This will allow us to continue building confidence with our Chinese counterparts on expected maneuvering to avoid mishaps.”

The four-engine WC-135, referred to as the “Constant Pheonix,” is used to search for the distinctive elements released by a nuclear test or explosion and is based on a modified Boeing C-135.  It collects samples from the air to be analyzed to make assessments about nuclear activity, something of increased importance in the region due to recent developments in North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal.  A sixth nuclear test has been expected from Kim Jong Un’s regime for months, as the North Korean government has repeatedly claimed that it will not be intimidated into slowing their pursuit of the weapon system and a missile platform that can accurately deliver it.

All of the aircraft involved were flying in international airspace at the time of the encounter, though in 2013 China declared the vast majority of the East China Sea as a part of their “air defense identification zone.”  As a result, China has demanded that all foreign aircraft operating over the region declare their intentions to the Chinese military and follow their instructions.  Like China’s claims over the majority of the South China Sea, a shipping lane of incredible import for international commerce, most other nations do not recognize China’s increasing claims over the air and water in the area, instead maintaining that these regions are international airspace and waters.

“U.S. military aircraft routinely transit international airspace throughout the Pacific, including the East China Sea,” Hodge said. “This flight was no exception.”

China believes flights such as Wednesday’s Constant Phoenix operation are intended to spy on China, rather than to monitor the situation on the Korean peninsula.  Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not address this incident specifically on Friday, but insinuated that the intercept was a result of China exercising its right to defend its airspace from prying eyes.

In her statement, Hua Chunying explained, “for a long time U.S. ships and aircraft have been carrying out close-up surveillance of China, which can really easily cause misunderstandings or misjudgements, or cause unexpected incidents at sea or in the air.”

She added that she hoped “the U.S. side can respect China’s reasonable security concerns.”

Unsafe or unprofessional interactions between Chinese and American aircraft are relatively uncommon.  The last such incident occurred in February, when a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft was forced to divert its flight path in order to avoid a potential collision with a People’s Liberation Army Air Force KJ-200 surveillance aircraft flying over the South China Sea.  There were no such altercations throughout all of 2015 or 2016.

In April of 2001, a Chinese fighter collided with a U.S. surveillance plane over the South China Sea, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and an international incident that included the detention of the 24 U.S. crew members for ten days.  The two countries have since signed an agreement aimed at preventing such an incident from occurring again, though the recent uptick in such interactions may indicate a shift in Chinese military policy away from honoring that policy.


Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures