China Demands US "Cease Immediately" Provocative Spy Plane Missions Near Its Borders

Just days after a report that two Chinese J-11 fighter jets buzzed a US spy plane above the South China Sea, Beijing has officially escalated its displeasure at US surveillance up the chain of command and as Reuters reports, Beijing has demanded an end to all U.S. surveillance near China. 

As a reminder, a U.S. Defense official said two Chinese J-11 fighter jets flew within 50 feet (15 meters) of the U.S. EP-3 aircraft in what the Pentagon deemed an "unsafe" intercept. And, just like Russia, China has had enough and demands US provocations end.

Stock footage of a Chinese J-11 fighter

"It must be pointed out that U.S. military planes frequently carry out reconnaissance in Chinese coastal waters, seriously endangering Chinese maritime security," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei Hong told reporters, adding that  "we demand that the United States immediately cease this type of close reconnaissance activity to avoid having this sort of incident happening again."

Speaking at a regular press briefing, he described the Pentagon statement as "not true" and said the actions of the Chinese aircraft were "completely in keeping with safety and professional standards." "They maintained safe behavior and did not engage in any dangerous action," Hong said.

The encounter comes a week after China scrambled fighter jets as a U.S. Navy ship sailed close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea. Another Chinese intercept took place in 2014 when a Chinese fighter pilot flew acrobatic maneuvers around a U.S. spy plane.

We are confident Russia will echo China's concerns. As we summarized earlier this week, in just the past month there have been at least four close fly-bys involved Russian fighter jets following close US incursions:

First a Russian Su-24 "buzzed" the US missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea allegedly over Russian territorial waters; then just days later another Russian fighter jet flew within 50 feet of a US recon plane also flying over the Baltic Sea; this was followed by a third close encounter when a little over a week later a Russian Mig-31s flew within 50 feet of a US spy plane flying over a Russian naval base in the Kamchatka peninsula; the fourth provocation took place just days later when as a Russian SU-27 conducted a barrel roll over a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane flying over the Baltic sea.

The Chinese intercept occurred days before President Barack Obama travels to parts of Asia from May 21-28, including a Group of Seven summit in Japan and his first trip to Vietnam.

Washington has accused Beijing of militarizing the South China Sea after creating artificial islands, while Beijing, in turn, has criticized increased U.S. naval patrols and exercises in Asia. In 2015, the United States and China announced agreements on a military hotline and rules of behavior to govern air-to-air encounters called the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).

"This is exactly the type of irresponsible and dangerous intercepts that the air-to-air annex to CUES is supposed to prevent," said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank.

China has fired back that there would be no need for the "irresponsible" intercepts if the US did not launch recon missions in the first place.

However Poling pressed on and said that either some part of China's air force "hadn't gotten the message," or it was meant as a signal of displeasure with recent U.S. freedom of navigation actions in the South China Sea. "If the latter, it would be very disappointing to find China sacrificing the CUES annex for political gamesmanship."

Zhang Baohui, a security expert at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said he believed the encounter highlighted the limitation of CUES, and shows that Chinese pilots would still fly close to U.S. surveillance planes if needed. "Frankly, we're always going to see these kinds of incidents as China will always put the priority on national security over something like CUES whenever it feels its interests are directly threatened," he said.

The latest encounter took place in international airspace about 100 nautical miles south of mainland China and about 50 nautical miles east of Hainan island, a Pentagon spokesman said in a statement issued later on Thursday.

Why is the US spying on Hainan? Because China's submarine bases on Hainan are home to an expanding fleet of nuclear-armed submarines and a big target for on-going Western surveillance operations. The Guangdong coast is also believed to be home to some of China's most advanced missiles, including the DF-21D anti-ship weapon.

And that is why US espionage in the region will continue, even as the Pentagon tries to put the blame on Beijing for any and all such future "close encounters" until eventually there is an "unexpected" incident.