BANGKOK (AP) — 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 U.S. military said, underscoring the potential for a mishap as both countries vie for influence in the region.
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 U.S. 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 Foreign Ministry put the blame on the U.S., suggesting the American aircraft was flying over the South China Sea as a deliberate provocation.
“The U.S. military planes traveled thousands of miles to China’s doorstep to flex muscle,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning.
“That is the source of maritime and air security risks, and is not conducive to regional peace and stability.”
The U.S. military said in its statement that the aircraft was “lawfully conducting routine operations” ahead of the intercept Tuesday, but did not immediately respond to questions Friday about specifically what the B-52 was doing over the South China Sea or whether it was with a group of planes.
After 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 U.S. 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, U.S. President Joe Biden renewed a warning that the U.S. would be obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, aircraft or vessels come under armed attack. He spoke in a news conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday at the White House.
China reacted by saying the U.S. has no right to interfere in Beijing’s disputes with Manila.
“The U.S. defense 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,” Mao, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told reporters Thursday in Beijing.
The U.S. and its allies regularly conduct maritime maneuvers in the South China Sea, and also routinely fly aircraft over the area to emphasize that the waters and airspace are international.
Aerial intercepts are common, with the U.S. 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 U.S. military said in its statement that the incident will not change its approach.
“The U.S. will continue to fly, sail and operate — safely and responsibly — wherever international laws allow,” the military said.
Likewise, China showed no sign of backing down.
“China will continue to take resolute measures to maintain its national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity,” Mao said.