American Spy Plane Has Uncomfortably Close Encounter with Chinese Jet Fighter

HONG KONG—The U.S. military said a Chinese jet fighter conducted an unsafe maneuver while intercepting an American spy plane in international airspace over the South China Sea last week.

During the Dec. 21 encounter, a J-11 fighter operated by a Chinese navy pilot flew “in front of and within 20 feet of the nose” of a U.S. Air Force RC-135, forcing the reconnaissance plane to “take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision,” the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said Thursday.

The RC-135 was “lawfully conducting routine operations over the South China Sea,” the command said, without saying precisely where the intercept took place. Its statement was accompanied by video footage, apparently shot from the RC-135’s cockpit, showing a close encounter with a Chinese fighter carrying what appeared to be air-to-air missiles.

The footage shows the J-11 flying slightly ahead and to the left of the RC-135, with the distance between them narrowing until the American plane seemed to maneuver away.

U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific will “continue to fly, sail and operate at sea and in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” the command said.

China’s Defense Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. military has reported what it calls “unsafe encounters” with the People’s Liberation Army from time to time, often in the South and East China Seas, where Beijing asserts sovereignty claims that overlap with those of neighboring Asian governments.

“We’ve seen a sharp increase in the number of dangerous PLA intercepts of U.S. and allied forces—including Canadian aircraft—that were operating lawfully in international airspace over the South and East China Seas,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a November speech.

In the South China Sea, whose resource-rich waters are crossed by vital shipping lanes, Chinese claims overlap with those of six governments, including five Southeast Asian countries. Washington, which doesn’t have claims in these waters, has generally called on rival claimants to resolve disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.

American military forces often operate in the area, gathering intelligence on their Chinese counterparts and conducting what the U.S. calls “freedom of navigation” operations, meant to challenge what it deems excessive sovereignty claims by China.

Beijing says it respects freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but often raises objections to American military operations in the area, particularly close to China’s southern island province of Hainan and other Chinese-controlled features. The PLA routinely intercepts foreign military aircraft and vessels deemed to stray too near.

Other Western countries have also reported this year what they described as unsafe encounters with Chinese warplanes.

In June, Australia’s Defense Ministry said a Chinese jet fighter had intercepted an Australian military spy plane over the South China Sea in a “dangerous” manner on May 26. Canada has also accused Chinese military planes of harassing its patrol aircraft conducting surveillance to enforce sanctions against North Korea.

Write to Chun Han Wong at

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