Beijing has dismissed the Pentagon’s accusations that a Chinese fighter jet flew too close to a US military aircraft off Hainan Island, blaming “massive and frequent” surveillance for dangerous mid-air confrontations in state media.
US Rear Admiral John Kirby had said on Friday the armed Chinese warplane came close to the American surveillance aircraft three times, flying underneath the American plane, at the P-8’s nose and then in parallel with the wingtips, less than 30 feet (nine metres) apart.
In approaching the P-8 Poseidon, the Chinese jet at one point performed a barrel roll, apparently to display its weapons, in what Kirby called a “very dangerous” intercept.
China’s defence ministry spokesman Yang Yujun called the claims “totally groundless” in a statement on Saturday cited by the Xinhua state news agency, lashing out at the American military for conducting surveillance operations close to Chinese waters.
Yang said the fighter jet pilot was a safe distance away and making regular checks on the surveillance aircraft during Tuesday’s confrontation in international waters about 135 miles (220 kilometres) east of Hainan island.
It was the United States, and its “massive and frequent close-in surveillance of China” that endangered air and marine security, Xinhua quoted Yang as saying.
The episode this week has raised tensions and underlined the growing rivalry between the United States and China, with Beijing building up its military and asserting its territorial claims across the Pacific.
The move also threatened to jeopardise longstanding US efforts to bolster relations with China’s military, at a time when officials have touted progress in forging a dialogue with Beijing’s top brass.
The skies over Hainan Island were the scene of a major international incident in April 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US Navy EP-3 spy plane.
The collision left one Chinese pilot dead and forced the American plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan. Chinese authorities initially detained the 24-member American crew for more than a week until both governments worked out a face-saving deal for their release.
Washington and Beijing have long disagreed over aviation and maritime rights in the strategic South China Sea, with the Americans insisting the area is part of international waters and airspace.
China argues it is part of the country’s “exclusive economic zone.”