U.S. says China intercept could lead to mid-air collision

BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese fighter jet came dangerously close to an Air Force aircraft over the South China Sea, forcing the U.S. pilot to maneuver to avoid a collision, the U.S. military said.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement on Thursday that the incident occurred on Dec. 21 when a PLA Navy J-11 aircraft flew within 6 meters (20 feet) in front of the nose of an RC-135 , the RC-135 is a model of large reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force.

The statement said that the US aircraft “lawfully performed routine operations in the international airspace of the South China Sea.” Its pilot was forced to “take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision”.

China routinely challenges U.S. and allied military aircraft, especially in strategically important waters that China claims over the entire South China Sea. This behavior led to a mid-air collision in 2001 that killed a Chinese plane and killed its pilot.

“The U.S. Joint Indo-Pacific Force is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and will continue to fly, sail and operate at sea and in international airspace, with due regard for the safety of all ships and aircraft in accordance with international law,” the statement said.

“We want all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to have safe use of international airspace in accordance with international law,” it said.

China is deeply dissatisfied with U.S. military assets in the South China Sea and has routinely asked its ships and aircraft to leave the region. The United States says it has every right to operate in and over the South China Sea, ignoring China’s demands.

Such dangerous incidents persist despite an agreement between the United States and China on how to handle unexpected encounters.

The U.S. and others have also accused China of harassing military aircraft and ships in the East China Sea off China’s coast and as far afield as the Horn of Africa, where China maintains a naval base.

The People’s Liberation Army, the military arm of China’s ruling Communist Party, did not immediately respond to the latest U.S. complaint.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not provide details, but accused the US surveillance operation of “posing a serious threat to China’s national security”.

“China will continue to take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security, and work with regional countries to resolutely safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Wang Yi said at a regular press conference on Friday.

Wang also reiterated Beijing’s opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, with Beijing threatening to use force to take control of the self-governing democratic island if necessary. Washington this week approved the sale of a $180 million anti-tank system to Taiwan as the Chinese military threat grows.

While the United States has no formal ties with Taiwan in compliance with Beijing’s demands, U.S. law requires that the island be capable of self-defense. While Beijing has given no deadline for Taiwan to accept its ultimatum, some U.S. defense officials believe Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be more eager to resolve the issue militarily in the coming years.

Wang Yi said that the United States “should stop arms sales and military contacts with Taiwan, and stop creating new factors that lead to tension in the Taiwan Strait.”

“China will take strong measures to firmly defend national sovereignty and security interests,” he said.

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