China on Saturday rejected U.S. claims that an armed Chinese jet fighter had nearly struck a U.S. Navy aircraft during a series of dangerous maneuvers while the two planes were flying in international airspace.
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense accused the Navy plane of spying, urging "the United States to stop its close-in reconnaissance activities against China" in a statement on its web site.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday that the incident occurred Tuesday as a Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft was on a routine patrol mission about 135 miles east of China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
“We have registered our strong concerns to the Chinese about the unsafe and unprofessional intercept, which posed a risk to the safety and the well-being of the air crew, and was inconsistent with customary international law,” Kirby told reporters.
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The Chinese defense ministry, however, dismissed the Pentagon's assertions as "totally groundless" and said its J-ll fighter jet had carried out a customary check of what it said were two U.S. naval planes.
"During the activity of identification and verification, the relevant operations made by the Chinese pilot were professional, and the Chinese jet kept a safe distance from the U.S. plane," the ministry said.
Kirby provided a much different account.
The Chinese plane made three passes at the Poseidon, their wingtips coming within 20 feet of each other at one point, and did a barrel roll over the Navy plane in one of the passes, Kirby said.
Kirby indicated that some of the Chinese warplane’s maneuvers may have been deliberately provocative in a sort of aerial flexing of muscle.
“The Chinese jet also passed the nose of the P-8 at 90 degrees with its belly toward the P-8 Poseidon, we believe to make a point of showing its weapons load,” Kirby said.
Asked why the Pentagon had waited three days to disclose the incident, Kirby said the United States wanted to deliver a formal protest -- called a demarche -- to the Chinese government before making it public.
“We’ve registered our concerns very strongly to official diplomatic channels with the Chinese,” Kirby said. “This kind of behavior not only is unprofessional, it’s unsafe, and it’s certainly not (in) keeping with the kind of military-to-military relationship that we’d like to have with China.”
Kirby said that China was apparently trying to send a message of “resisting the flight of this (U.S.) patrol aircraft,” even though it was flying in international airspace.
Kirby said he was not aware of any attempt by the Chinese pilot to communicate with the P-8 crew before or during the provocative stunt.
In an earlier incident over separate waters near China’s eastern coast, the United States last November sent two military planes into a disputed portion of the East China Sea after Beijing extended its vital airspace to include that area.
China and Japan both now claim the airspace as well as a tiny chain of uninhabited islands beneath it.