Chinese fighter jet had ‘unsafe’ interaction with U.S. military plane in June

Last updated on July 14, 2022

A Chinese fighter jet had an “unsafe” and “unprofessional” interaction with a U.S. special operations C-130 aircraft in the South China Sea last month, according to two people with knowledge of the incident.

The interaction, which has not been previously reported, comes amid more aggressive military actions by Chinese pilots in the East and South China seas in recent months involving Australian and Canadian aircraft. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin condemned the behavior in Singapore last month.

“We’ve seen an alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA aircraft and vessels,” Austin said. “This should worry us all.”

In February, personnel aboard a Chinese navy ship pointed a laser at an Australian P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, Austin said. And in the weeks leading up to Austin’s visit, Chinese fighter jets conducted a series of dangerous intercepts of allied aircraft operating in the East China and South China seas, including when a Chinese jet cut off an Australian P-8 and released chaff that the Australian plane ingested into its engine.

Meanwhile, Canada’s military in early June accused Chinese warplanes of harassing a CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft monitoring North Korean activity.

The June incident involved a Chinese Su-30 and an American C-130. The U.S. plane was a special operations forces variant of the Lockheed Martin C-130 cargo aircraft, according to one of the people.

The people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, did not provide details about the incident, including the exact date, but said the Pentagon deemed it was “unsafe” and “unprofessional.”

Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Martin Meiners declined to comment on the interaction, noting that “our aircrews frequently encounter safe and professional intercepts, and when it is otherwise we have procedures in place to address it.”

“The United States will continue to fly and operate in accordance with international law and expects others to do the same,” he said.

Chinese and U.S. officials have clashed recently over Taiwan. Beijing considers Taiwan part of the mainland and frequently objects to U.S. support of Taipei. Although the United States does not formally have diplomatic relations with the island, Washington has long supported Taiwan’s self-defense capability with arms sales and a close military relationship, as laid out in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her intent to visit Taipei in April — a trip that she postponed because she tested positive for Covid-19 — Beijing warned that any such visit would severely affect Chinese-U.S. relations.

“It would bring serious damage to the foundation of China-U.S. relations, and would send the wrong messages to the Taiwan secessionists,” said Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time.

“China would respond with resolute and forceful measures, and all ensuing consequences would be borne solely by the U.S.,” Zhao added.

There is also diplomatic chatter in D.C. that Beijing may ramp up its military intimidation campaign against Taiwan in reprisal for Taiwanese Vice President William Lai’s high profile visit to Japan this week to attend former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s funeral.

And in a June 10 meeting with Austin, Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe pressed his U.S. counterpart on the “Taiwan problem,” according to the Global Times.

The news of the South China Sea interaction comes a week after Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley spoke by video teleconference with Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department.

During the July 7 call, Li conveyed that Taiwan is a “core interest” of China, according to a defense official. Milley relayed the importance of managing “competition” and maintaining “open lines of communication,” according to a DoD readout.

It was their first call since Jan. 8, 2021, which made headlines when it was referenced in a book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

During the call, which took place two days after pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, and another on Oct. 30, 2020, Milley reassured Li that the United States would not strike China and pledged to give the Chinese general a heads up if then-President Donald Trump ordered an attack, according to the book.

“General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise,” Milley is reported to have said.

Phelim Kline contributed to this report.