Mid-air 'near miss' highlights strategic divide between US and China in Asia
A close encounter between US and Chinese military aircraft highlights the divide between the two countries' ambitions in the region
The encounter between a People's Liberation Army fighter jet and a US Navy surveillance aircraft off China's southern coast last week underlined mutual suspicion between China and the United States about strategic objectives in Asia, analysts said.
Washington and Beijing gave contrasting accounts over the weekend of the encounter on Wednesday between a US Navy P-8 surveillance plane and a Chinese J-11 jet over the South China Sea near Hainan . The Pentagon said the Chinese jet made several close passes by the Navy P-8 Poseidon plane, coming within nine metres of it at one point. China's defence ministry rejected that depiction as "totally untenable", saying its pilot was professional and kept a safe distance.
A Chinese navy officer said the US plane was probably tracking Chinese nuclear submarines, which were believed to be taking part in a military drill.
Beijing has complained that frequent US military surveillance of China's coast is a major barrier to a better bilateral military relationship. But the US insists it has the right under international law to carry out the missions.
The tension between the two countries persists despite President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama agreeing at a summit last year to forge a new kind of relationship between the two countries.
Benjamin Herscovitch, a researcher with the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia, said mutual suspicion about strategic objectives in Asia would continue to undermine efforts to forge a "new model of great power relations" between China and the US.
Deakin University international relations professor Chengxin Pan said both countries needed to establish ground rules to ward off danger.
"Averting danger requires both sides to accommodate the other side's legitimate security concerns and work towards establishing mutually agreed codes of conduct through engagement," Pan said.
Pan warned that relations between the US and China soured in 2001 when a PLA Navy J-8 fighter jet and a US Navy EP-3 spy plane collided in mid-air over the South China Sea near Hainan.
The latest encounter comes as Beijing builds up its military clout to assert its territorial claims in the region, while Washington, under Obama's pivot-to-Asia strategy, is also increasing its military presence. Herscovitch said such incidents would become more frequent and the relationship between China and the US would remain fraught despite the efforts to create friendly ties between the two militaries.
"The Sino-US military relationship is dependent on the Sino-US strategic relationship, and the latter is increasingly bumpy because of a series of ongoing irritants," he said. The Chinese and US militaries "will not be able to defuse the deep-seated Sino-US tension that is at root diplomatic and political rather than military".