At a moment the US and Chinese militaries have halted all communications, a dangerous incident between the rival powers has occurred over the South China Sea.
It happened last Friday, but the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) only on Tuesday revealed the incident, alleging that a Chinese fighter jet engaged in an "unprofessional intercept" of an American spy plane flying in international airspace.
The US statement described that a Chinese PLA J-16 fighter flew just in front of the nose of a US RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft, and INDOPACOM further published video of what it called an "unnecessarily aggressive maneuver".
Based on video of the intercept, the J-16 passes so close to the RC-135 that the US aircraft's cockpit appears to shake from the turbulence of the PLA plane's wake.
"The RC-135 was conducting safe and routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace, in accordance with international law," INDOPACOM said. "The United States will continue to fly, sale and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international law allows."
"We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law," the US military statement emphasized.
But China is disputing this interpretation, given it regularly attempts to claim both maritime territory and airspace based on an expanse of manmade and other militarized islands in the South China Sea. Washington has rejected this interpretation of the contested territory, calling it international airspace.
Watch the Pentagon-released footage unveiled late Tuesday...
The US military has released footage of a Chinese fighter jet performing an 'unnecessary aggressive' manoeuvre, claiming the Chinese jet passed directly in front of the nose of the US Air Force plane during the intercept on 26 May.https://t.co/2lxGDKlyMP pic.twitter.com/iPS3UTAHes— Sky News (@SkyNews) May 30, 2023
There have been several of these 'close call' incidents in recent years, including a February intercept where a Chinese J-11 fighter approached about 500 feet off the wing of an American P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. The Chinese jet shadowed the US patrol plane for more than an hour.
US planes have also received messages from nearby PLA jets of late such as "No approaching any more or you will pay full responsibility" - but so far there's been no live fire or warning shot incidents, and yet these episodes remain highly dangerous for the potential of a direct clash.