Foreign Policy Blogs

A Case of Improper Airmanship

While Pacific Command declined to say how close the Chinese fighter flew to the U.S. plane, China’s Defense Ministry said “Judging by the report, the U.S. side is again deliberately hyping up the issue of the close surveillance of China by U.S. military aircraft.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei also weighed in, suggesting the intercept was a defensive, not offensive maneuver, “China has the right to take defensive measures,” and demanded a stop to the U.S. surveillance flights.

The intercept on Tuesday was not an isolated event. Last month, a U.S. defense official announced that two Chinese J-11 fighter jets flew within 50 feet (15 meters) of the U.S. EP-3 aircraft just east of Hainan island in the South China Sea, apparently violating an agreement between the two governments. In August 2014, a Chinese fighter jet in international waters buzzed a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft within 20 feet, conducting a dangerous barrel roll.  

The latest Chinese intercept comes at a time of concern over whether China will establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, in retaliation for an upcoming ruling on a court case decision at the Hague filed by the Philippines. A decision is expected in weeks and is likely to rule against some of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea which are contested by Manila.

The concern among regional claimants in the South China Sea has also caused concern in Washington. Following the annual Shangri-La Asian regional defense forum last weekend in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Beijing the establishment of an air defense zone in the South China Sea would be a “provocative and destabilizing act.”

Beijing previously declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in 2013, which covers islands controlled by Japan yet are claimed by China. The new ADIZ is expected to encompass a large area of the South China Sea, including the airspace over islands disputed among Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Should Beijing be prompted to declare another ADIZ in response to an adverse ruling at the Hague, imagine the greater boldness its pilots will assert in protecting their new ADIZ, acting under the belief that they now control the airspace, and any freedom of navigation exercises or surveillance flights directly threaten the mainland (or the islands and waters they claim).

Any future intrusions by non-Chinese aircraft could easily lead to more aggressive restrictions to airspace freedom of navigation–possibly triggering an even bigger, more threatening challenge from either U.S. or Australian aircraft. While Beijing may argue any freedom of navigation or surveillance flights seriously harm China’s security, the declaration of a new ADIZ only emboldens Chinese fighter aircraft, heightening the risks of miscalculation. So let’s save the aerobatics for the air show.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666