Beijing responded on Wednesday to complaints from the United States about a Chinese fighter jet's dangerous interception of an American Air Force reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea by demanding an end to such flights. The incident adds to military, diplomatic and economic tensions between the countries over US support for self-governing Taiwan, China's refusal to engage in dialogue between their armed forces and Beijing's flying of a suspected spy balloon over the US.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters at a daily briefing that China would keep taking measures it deems necessary to safeguard its sovereignty. "The US should immediately stop these dangerous provocations," Mao said. The US Indo-Pacific Command called the Chinese plane's actions an “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre”, adding to complaints that China's military has become significantly more aggressive over the past five years, intercepting US aircraft and ships in the region.
China says it owns the South China Sea virtually in its entirety, a claim not recognised internationally and directly challenged by nations along its coast including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. In a statement on Tuesday, the US military said the pilot of the Chinese J-16 fighter jet flew directly in front of the nose of the RC-135 conducting routine operations in international airspace last Friday.
Military-to-military contacts between the sides have all but evaporated in recent years amid a historic decline in governmental relations, even as trade and personal exchanges remain strong. Further dampening prospects for a reduction in tensions, China said its defence chief will not meet with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin when the two men attend a security conference in Singapore over the weekend.
Austin is scheduled to address the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday, while Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Li Shangfu will speak at the gathering on Sunday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the plane incident showed why it is vital for the US and China to maintain dialogue at a senior level in order to prevent miscommunication and avoid miscalculations that could lead to conflict. He said it was “regrettable” that Beijing had rejected Austin's request for a meeting with the Chinese defence minister.
“I think it only underscores why it is so important that we have regular, open lines of communication, including by the way between our defence ministers," Blinken said at a news conference at the end of an EU-US trade and technology meeting in Lulea, Sweden. “As we've said repeatedly, while we have a real competition with China, we also want to make sure that doesn't veer into conflict and the most important starting point for that are regular lines of communication," he said.
China has said the US is entirely responsible for the breakdown in communications but has not publicly given a reason.
With its People's Liberation Army as the world's largest standing military, which answers directly to the ruling Communist Party, China frequently challenges military aircraft from the US and its allies in the South and East China Seas, and the Taiwan Strait connecting the two. Such behaviour led to a 2001 in-air collision between a Chinese fighter and a US Navy surveillance plane in which the Chinese plane was lost and the pilot killed.
In Tuesday's statement, the Indo-Pacific Command said America will continue to “fly, sail, and operate — safely and responsibly — wherever international law allows,” and expects all other countries to do the same.
(With inputs from AP)