US and Chinese warplanes risk a mid-air collision — and an international incident

The World
A Chinese J-11 fighter jet is seen flying near a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon about 215 km (135 miles) east of China's Hainan Island in this U.S. Department of Defense handout photo taken August 19, 2014.

Last week, the Pentagon says a Chinese J-11 fighter aircraft came "within 20 feet" of a American P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane off of Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

If that sounds scary, incidents like this actually aren't rare. “There have been several such close encounters with very risky behavior by the Chinese pilots over recent months,” says, David Shambough, Director of the Chinese Policy Program at George Washington University 

In fact, this incident sounds oddly similar to an encounter in 2001. During that incident, an American P-3 reconnaissance plane — the P-8's predecessor — almost crashed into the sea after being struck by a Chinese jet. The Chinese fighter pilot crashed and died, while the Americans made an emergency landing on Hainan Island and were held for about 10 days.

This time, as in 2001, Shambough says the Chinese fighter reportedly buzzed the American reconnaissance plane several times. It apparently flew across the P-8's nose at a 90 degree angle, then flashed its weaponry in another pass before coming back to do what’s called a "barrel roll" just above the American aircraft.

He thinks this was clearly a provocative and intentional act. He believes it could have been a result of Chinese discomfort with US intelligence gathering in the area. “It’s a cat and mouse game," Shambough says. "It goes on all the time. It’s just not reported in the media until there is a close incident."

Shambough says if these brushes result in a crash, it would produce a major incident and a national security crisis between the US and China — again, just like in 2001. This incident has resulted in several "diplomatic demarches," or formal diplomatic protests. But the Chinese government is denying that the incident ever happened.

For now, it’s also not clear if orders to buzz the American plane came from the Chinese government or if the pilot acted on his own. Either way, Shambough says the US has photos to prove that it actually did take place.

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