The United States on Tuesday accused China of orchestrating a “concerted” campaign of dangerous and provocative air force maneuvers against US military planes in international airspace, warning such moves could spark inadvertent conflict between the two powers.
The Pentagon said aggressive tactics by Chinese aircraft threatened US planes flying over the East and South China Sea regions, tallying more than 180 such incidents since fall 2021 — “more in the past two years than in the decade before that,” said Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs.
“That’s nearly 200 cases where (Chinese) operators have… discharged chaff or shot off flares or approached too rapidly or close to US aircraft,” Ratner told a news conference.
US-China relations are at their lowest point in years, with tension over a range of issues including trade, human rights, Taiwan and the South China Sea. The United States says it now sees China as its top geopolitical rival.
“This type of operational behavior can cause accidents, and dangerous accidents can lead to inadvertent conflict,” Ratner said, adding that the incident count, tallied since the fall of 2021, increases to nearly 300 when US allies are included.
Ratner alleged there was an intentional campaign by Beijing “to perform these risky behaviors in order to coerce a change in lawful US operational activity.”
“The United States will not be deterred, or coerced. We will continue to fly, sail, and operate safely and responsibly, wherever international law allows,” he said.
In one instance, Ratner said, a Chinese fighter plane “approached our asset at a speed of hundreds of miles per hour, clearly armed and closing to just 30 feet away,” and stayed there for more than 15 minutes.
Tuesday’s news conference came after previous warnings from the White House over the summer that Chinese military aggressiveness at sea and in the air was leading to near collisions, and could soon lead to casualties.
“It won’t be long before somebody gets hurt,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in June.
Ratner said the dangerous jet intercepts fit in a broader pattern of provocative naval and land maneuvers.
“We’re seeing it on land against our Indian partners,” Ratner said. “So this is part of a much broader picture.”
China and India share a long land border, and disputes over parts of it have in recent years led to military casualties on both sides.
Regarding the jet incursions, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has spoken “publicly and privately with allies and partners and frankly, privately with PRC counterparts,” Ratner said, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China, the country’s official name.
Ratner also blamed the incidents on China declining “our invitations to open lines of military-to-military communication at the senior-most levels.”