Chinese and US spy planes have close encounter over South China Sea

US Navy aircraft alters course to avoid collision

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 7:10pm

A rare close encounter between two surveillance planes from China and the United States near a disputed part of the South China Sea this week suggests Beijing has started routine surveillance patrols in the area, analysts say.

Instead of intercepting the surveillance aircraft with fighter jets, analysts said both sides had been restrained, although the incident also raised questions about the readiness of Chinese airstrips on reclaimed islands nearby.

The two military planes came “inadvertently” close on Wednesday near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in what US Pacific Command officials described as an “extremely rare” and “unsafe” incident, the US Navy Times reported. The two planes, a US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft and a Chinese KJ-200 airborne early warning aircraft, flew within 305 metres of each other in the general vicinity of Scarborough Shoal, it reported on Thursday. It said the US plane altered course to avoid a collision.

An unnamed Chinese defence official was quoted by the Global Times as saying that the American plane “approached within close proximity” of the Chinese plane, which was on a routine mission, and that the Chinese pilot took “legal and professional measures” to handle the situation.

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Military experts in China said the Chinese response had been restrained.

Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based naval expert, said the decision to deploy a surveillance aircraft showed China was “testing and observing” US behaviour in the South China Sea early in US President Donald Trump’s term.

“China didn’t want to cause too much trouble,” he said. “It wanted to play it safe ... and avoid dramatic action.”

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the encounter between the two planes suggested the People’s Liberation Army may have already established routine air surveillance in the region. Meanwhile, the fact the PLA had not scrambled fighter jets to intercept the US plane could be a hint that airstrips on man-made islands built by China in the Spratlys might be not fully functional.

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“A Chinese fighter jet will almost run out fuel when it flies from Hainan to Scarborough Shoal, making it unable to fly back unless accompanied by a tanker,” Wong said. The encounter with the KJ-200, which could fly longer and farther, “hinted the airstrips on the man-made islands might not be ready for Chinese fighter jets to do take-offs or landings”, he said.

A US navy official was quoted by CNN as saying such incidents were “extremely rare”, noting that there were only two last year and none in 2015. It was the first such instance this year.

In 2001, a collision between a US EP-3 Aries and a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island resulted in the death of a Chinese pilot.

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan