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China tells US to cool its jets

May 19, 2016

China's Foreign Ministry has requested that the US stop close reconnaissance of the South China Sea. On Tuesday, jets dispatched by Beijing intercepted a US military aircraft over the disputed waterway.

Chinesischer Kampfjet
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C.Wenbin

On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said two fighter jets had kept a safe distance from a US plane as it flew close to China's island province of Hainan on Tuesday.

The two Chinese J-11 fighters (as pictured above) had reportedly flown out to intercept the US EP-3 Aries and came so close that they forced the pilot to descend about 60 meters (200 feet) to avoid a collision, a US military official said.

According to the Pentagon, the incident took place in international airspace as the military aircraft carried out "a routine US patrol."

US officials say Beijing has militarized the South China Sea, creating islets with radar systems and airstrips in an important shipping route thought to contain vast energy deposits. Chinese officials, in turn, have criticized increased US naval exercises in Asia, defense deployments to the region and stockpiling of arms in South Korea.

'Assess the understanding'

According to an unidentified Department of Defense official quoted in US media reports, the Chinese jets came within about 15 meters of the US aircraft at one point on Tuesday. The Pentagon announced that the incident was being examined.

"The Department of Defense is reviewing a May 17 intercept of a US maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft by two tactical aircraft from the People's Republic of China," Pentagon spokesman Major Jamie Davis said in a statement released Wednesday. "Initial reports characterized the incident as unsafe," he added.

Tensions have increased in East Asia as China has sought to assert maritime dominance despite competing territorial claims from regional neighbors. China has attempted to assert control over most of the South China Sea, despite overlapping territorial claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and tiny Brunei. The United States has not taken sides over the competing claims, but officials have called for all sides to resolve the issue diplomatically and assert that the US, too, has the right to free movement in and over the sea.

"We have noted the relevant report," China's Defense Ministry announced. "According to the report, this is very possibly related to a close surveillance of China by US military aircraft. We will assess the understanding of the relevant circumstances."

A 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter jet and Navy EP-3 spy plane resulted in the death of the Chinese pilot and forced the US aircraft to make an emergency landing on Hainan. The crash unleashed an 11-day standoff as Chinese intelligence interrogated the 24 US crewmembers and held the plane for several months, further straining relations between the countries.

mkg/kl (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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