A Chinese daily has issued a pointed warning to the United States in the wake of last week’s incident over the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) involving a US reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese warplane.
“It would be a life and death fight between China and the US if the collisions in the South China Sea became confrontations concerning both sides’ core interests,” the Global Times noted rather melodramatically in an editorial.
The newspaper was commenting on what US military officials described as a “very dangerous intercept” by an armed Chinese jet of a US P-8 Poseidon in the skies near Hainan in China on August 19.
The Chinese plane is said to have flown to as close as 30 feet of the Poseidon three times and did a barrel roll apparently to show off the armaments on its belly.
Washington has issued a formal protest, saying the US plane was on routine patrol in international airspace when the Chinese fighter jet made the provocative maneuvers.
A Pentagon spokesman said “the unsafe and unprofessional intercept” endangered the plane’s crew “and was inconsistent with customary international law.”
But Beijing dismissed Washington’s claim as “totally groundless.” It said the fighter jet was checking out the US plane from a safe distance and that the pilot acted with “professional operation.”
Chinese authorities went as far as cautioning the US to stop spying on China. “Massive and frequent close-in surveillance” of China “is the root of accidents,” a Chinese defense spokesman has said.
It is not the first time that the US and China had engaged in an aerial confrontation. In 2001, the pilot of a Chinese fighter jet was killed when it collided with a US Navy spy plane, also off Hainan. The American plane was forced to land in Hainan where its crew of 24 were detained by Chinese authorities.
They were released after more than a week of face-saving negotiations between Washington and Beijing.
Such confrontations in the sky are bound to occur more frequently as China aggressively pursues its territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea and the US tries to project a more robust presence in the Asia Pacific sphere. Late last year, China declared an air defense identification zone that covered islets under Japan’s administrative control but which Beijing claims as its own. Japan has scrambled its jets several times to shadow Chinese planes flying too close to the disputed islets.
Beijing has since established a similar zone in the West Philippine Sea, further ramping up tension in the area.
These face-offs do not bode well for the Philippines and its neighbors in the region who are trying to hold off China’s maritime incursions. Beijing claims almost all the West Philippine Sea, which is criss-crossed with sea lanes and is believed to contain vast reserves of natural gas. China also considers the sea as a gateway to the Pacific Ocean for its expanding navy.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is hard-pressed projecting a united front against China’s territorial ambitions and at the same time convincing Beijing to be a partner in exploiting the West Philippine Sea’s resources. But it sees no other way of dealing with its powerful neighbor.
The ASEAN tightrope act is most relevant to the Philippines and Vietnam. Manila has brought a case in an international court to fight Beijing’s claims on the Spratly Islands. Hanoi, on the other hand, has forced China to pull out an oil rig it set up in the Paracels, just off Vietnam’s shores but not after Vietnamese and Chinese boats rammed each other, and deadly anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam.
It takes just one senseless act and one hair-trigger response to a provocation to ignite an already volatile situation. Right now, we cannot afford such a scenario.