Close Sino-US military aircraft encounter near Hong Kong raises crash fears

Safety could be compromised if fighter jets fly at higher altitudes and both sides refuse to make concessions, analyst says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 May, 2017, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 May, 2017, 11:32pm

An encounter between Chinese and US military aircraft in international airspace just 240km southeast of Hong Kong has raised concerns about civil aviation safety.

The Pentagon said yesterday that two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a US Navy surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea on Wednesday.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the US aircraft was probably monitoring a Chinese submarine base on Shangchuan Island in Taishan, Guangdong, about 130km from Hong Kong.

Chinese jets intercept US military plane over East China Sea

“It’s quite rare for US surveillance aircraft to fly so close to Hong Kong on an intelligence mission. I am afraid these kinds of unexpected encounters will happen more frequently,” Wong said.

US officials said initial reports indicated the US P-3 Orion surveillance plane was in international airspace 240km southeast of Hong Kong when the two Chinese J-10 fighters carried out the “unsafe intercept”. One J-10 flew within 200 metres in front of the US plane, restricting its ability to manoeuvre.

The Pentagon said the action was “unsafe and unprofessional”. “We ... will convey our concerns through appropriate channels with the Chinese government,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Gary Ross said in a statement.

The defence ministry did not issue a response by late on Saturday.

Shuangchuan Island is one of the most important submarine bases under the Southern Theatre Command, which covers the oil-rich and hotly contested South China Sea.

Wong said more unexpected encounters in the air would raise the risk of a crash, and traffic at least five big airports in the Pearl River Delta could be affected.

Former Hong Kong civil aviation chief Peter Lok Kung-nam said the risk of a crash would increase if both sides refuse to make concessions.

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Lok said fighter jets usually flew below the altitude of civilian aircraft but safety could be compromised if the military planes went higher.

“The safety of civil aircraft might be affected if those kinds of intercepts happen when military planes fly as high as civilian aircraft, or over 13,000 metres above sea level,” he said.

China is deeply suspicious of any US military activity around its coastline, especially in the South China Sea.

Earlier this month, two Chinese Su-30 fighters also intercepted a US WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft in international airspace over the East China Sea, in a manner the US military called “unprofessional”.But the defence ministry said the Su-30 aircraft had acted safely and professionally, and urged the US to cease close-in surveillance flights.

Additional reporting by Reuters