Chinese jet confronts US Navy plane
US Navy reconnaissance planes fly 21,500 feet above the South China Sea, and the Paracel Islands are a group of about 130 small atolls, the largest of which hosts a Chinese military base.
Voices said to be coming from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) airport crackle on the radio of a US Navy P-8 Poseidon and are heard with rare access by CNN crew aboard US planes. .
It reads: “American aircraft. Chinese airspace is 12 nautical miles. Do not approach any further or take full responsibility.”
A few minutes later, Chinese fighters armed with air-to-air missiles intercepted the U.S. aircraft and huddled just 500 feet off the port side.
The Chinese fighter was so close that the CNN crew could see the pilot turning his head to look at them, and could see the red star on the tail and the missile it was arming. I was.
American Airplane Pilot Lieutenant Nikki Slaughter welcomes a twin-seat, twin-engine PLA aircraft.
“People’s Liberation Army fighter, this is a U.S. Navy P-8A…I’m going to get you off the left flank and head west. Do the same.”
No response from the Chinese fighters, which escorted US planes for 15 minutes before turning away.
For the CNN crew aboard American jets, this is clear evidence of rising tensions in the South China Sea and between the United States and China.
The commanding officer of this U.S. Navy mission sees it differently.
“I think it’s a Friday afternoon in the South China Sea,” said the navy commander. Mark Hines told the CNN crew.
potential flash point
Over the past few years, the South China Sea has emerged as a major flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific region. Islands among them are partially claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, like the Paracel Islands, where a US Navy plane was intercepted nearby on Friday.
Strategic waterways not only hold vast resources of fish, oil and gas, but also pass through about a third of the world’s shipping, according to China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Worth about $3.4 trillion in 2016. power project.
China claims historic jurisdiction over nearly the entire vast ocean, and since 2014 has built small reefs and sandbars on artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems. , has provoked protests from other advocates.
The Paracel Islands, known as the Paracel Islands in China, lie in the northern part of the South China Sea, east of Da Nang in Vietnam, and south of Hainan Island in China.
Named by a 16th-century Portuguese cartographer, the area has no indigenous peoples and only a Chinese military garrison of up to 1,400 men, according to a CIA factbook.
Surrounding them is 12 nautical miles of airspace that China has claimed to be its own Friday, a claim Washington has denied.
Farther southeast lies the Spratly Islands, just 186 miles from the Philippines island of Palawan.
In 2016, in a lawsuit filed by the Philippines, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s claim to historic rights to most of the ocean had no legal basis.
However, Beijing has rejected the court’s ruling and continues to build up its military power by building bases in the Spratly Islands, known as the Spratly Islands.
China also conducts regular military exercises in much of the South China Sea and maintains a large coast guard and fishing fleet presence in disputed waters, frequently causing tensions with its neighbors.
On Friday, a U.S. Navy P-8 spotted a PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer while flying near the Philippines, descending to about 1,000 feet to get a closer look, and received further warnings from the People’s Liberation Army. .
“US military aircraft, US military aircraft, this is Chinese Navy Vessel 173. It is approaching us at low altitude. Please declare your intent to land.”
PLA warship 173 is the destroyer Changsha, likely armed with dozens of surface-to-air missiles.
US planes will keep a safe distance, says its pilot Lt. Slaughter.
“US aircraft. US aircraft. This is the Chinese Navy warship 173. You are clearly endangering my safety. You are clearly endangering my safety,” the Chinese ship said. say.
“I am a U.S. military aircraft. I will keep a safe distance from your unit,” Slaughter replied, and the U.S. mission will continue.
The US Navy says these missions are routine.
The Pentagon says US ships and aircraft operate regularly as long as international law allows. But China claims that the US presence in the South China Sea is exacerbating tensions.
When a U.S. guided-missile cruiser sailed near the Spratly Islands in November, the People’s Liberation Army said such actions “seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security,” adding, It is solid evidence that China is seeking and militarizing the South China Sea,” he said.
The U.S. Navy said the U.S. cruisers conducted operations “in accordance with international law” and continued normal operations in waters where freedom of the high seas applies.
For Hines, the U.S. commander of Friday’s mission, it’s always a relief when he’s talking to the Chinese side.
Silence brings uncertainty, he says.
“Whenever there is no response, the question remains. Do they understand what they are saying? Do they understand our intentions? Do you understand that no?” he says.
The answer was there for most of Friday. And the encounter was “professional,” Hines says. And he wants it to stay that way.