Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

A Chinese fighter jet came within 10 feet of an American B-52 bomber flying over the South China Sea, nearly causing an accident, the US military said, underscoring the potential for a mishap as both countries vie for influence in the region.

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In the night intercept, the Shenyang J-11 twin-engine fighter closed on the U.S. Air Force plane at an “uncontrolled excessive speed, flying below, in front of, and within 10 feet of the B-52, putting both aircraft in danger of a collision,” the US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement released late Thursday.

“We are concerned this pilot was unaware of how close he came to causing a collision,” the military said.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a similar incident in May, the Chinese government dismissed American complaints and demanded that Washington end such flights over the South China Sea.

China has been increasingly assertive in advancing its claims on most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters, a position rejected by the US and other countries that use the vast expanse of ocean for shipping.

China’s claims have led to longstanding territorial disputes with other countries in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest trade routes. A Chinese coast guard ship and an accompanying vessel last week rammed a Philippine coast guard ship and a military-run supply boat off a contested shoal in the waterway.

Following that incident, President Joe Biden renewed a warning that the US would be obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, aircraft or vessels come under armed attack. On Wednesday at the White House, he spoke in a news conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

China reacted by saying the US has no right to interfere in Beijing’s disputes with Manila.

“The US defence commitment to the Philippines should not undermine China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, nor should it support the illegal claims of the Philippines,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Thursday in a news conference in Beijing.

The US and its allies regularly conduct maritime maneuvers in the South China Sea, and also regularly fly aircraft over the area to emphasize that the waters and airspace are international.

The B-52 was “lawfully conducting routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace” when it was intercepted by the J-11 on Tuesday, the US military said.

Intercepts are common, with the US saying that there have been more than 180 such incidents since the fall of 2021.

They are not often as close as Tuesday’s incident, however, and with tensions already high between Beijing and Washington, a collision would have had the potential to lead to an escalation.

The US military said that the incident will not change its approach.

“The US will continue to fly, sail and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international laws allow,” the military said.

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