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Chinese fighter jet flies within 500 feet of U.S. patrol over South China Sea

On American patrol aircraft – The US Navy aircraft had been in the air over the South China Sea for a few hours when a warning was heard over the radio.

A voice from a ground station belonging to China’s air force said, “No more coming or you will pay full responsibility.”

Shortly thereafter, a Chinese J-11 fighter jet appeared about 500 feet off the left wing, flying next to the American P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for more than an hour as it flew past the mostly uninhabited islands. Passed over, which is claimed by both China and its own. Neighbors.

Janice McKay Fryer / NBC News

US officials said encounters like those seen by NBC News on Friday, though professional, are becoming frequent as Beijing and Washington step up their campaigns for influence in the Pacific. The strategically important South China Sea is an increasingly prominent stage for rising tensions between the world’s two biggest economies, which have clashed over everything from Taiwan to war in Ukraine.

US Navy officer inside the plane Before returning to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, about half a dozen computers sat at stations, analyzing radar images from powerful special cameras mounted on the outside of the plane as it made its way around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Captain Will Torrason, commander of a US Navy surveillance aircraft, told NBC News early Friday that once a Chinese aircraft comes within 1,000 feet “we will communicate with them.”

“Usually we don’t get a response, sometimes we get nonverbal responses. But overall we’re trying to encourage a safe and professional encounter while we’re both operating in international airspace,” he said. Said.

Janice McKay Fryer / NBC News

China, which has the world’s largest navy, claims sovereignty over much of the South China Sea despite a landmark 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that its claims have no legal basis. Its stand has angered several countries in the region with whom it has territorial disputes.

The US and many of China’s neighbors accuse Beijing of using “gray zone” tactics that are not legally acts of war to intimidate other countries and assert greater control over the region. In response, the US regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” and other operations in international waters and airspace.

China says it is defending its sovereignty and maritime interests and that the “close reconnaissance” by US aircraft and warships threatens its national security and undermines regional peace and stability.

China has built artificial islands over the past decade, making it easier for its coast guard and marine militia to conduct almost daily patrols. “You now routinely see sustained presence in the most competitive areas,” said Raymond Powell of the Guardian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford.

On other islands that were once small, rocky outcrops, China has quietly installed runways, radar sites and missile systems.

“Since I’ve been in the Navy now, 18, 19 years, I can tell you there’s been a dramatic change in that period, especially the South China Sea,” said Cmdr. Mark Hines aboard the American plane. He said building runways and hangars was “typical now but it wasn’t necessary” when he joined the Navy.

Authorities monitored radar images from powerful special cameras mounted on the outside of the aircraft.
Authorities monitored radar images from powerful special cameras mounted on the outside of the aircraft.Janice McKay Fryer / NBC News

The result is a somewhat tense encounter. Late last year, the US military said an Air Force plane carrying out routine operations over the South China Sea was forced to maneuver to avoid colliding with a Chinese fighter jet that flew dangerously high. Had been. Beijing blamed the US and said it would continue to take “necessary measures”.

Given US-China tensions over issues including China’s surveillance balloon program, there is concern that a small incident in the South China Sea could easily escalate, said John Rainey Short, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who studies China. Let us study the geopolitics of Area.

“You just worry that one little spark could start a fire,” said Short, who is spending a semester at the University of the Philippines Diliman in Manila.

Worried by Chinese incursions, the Philippines, under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is reinvigorating its ties with the US, which seeks to re-engage with the Asia-Pacific region not only militarily but also economically and diplomatically .

During a visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this month, the two countries announced an agreement to increase US access to military bases there. They also agreed to resume joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea.

Hu Bo, director of the Center for Marine Strategic Studies at Peking University in Beijing, said that from a security point of view, China has the right to object to US military activity in the South China Sea.

“The United States would also not be happy if the Chinese military maintained a large military presence around the United States,” he said, adding that China’s position on the South China Sea has been consistent and that it was countries like the Philippines that were Were. more aggressive.

“It seems to the outside world that China’s policy is aggressive, but from the Chinese perspective, China has actually been very restrained and has not made any new moves,” he said. “In contrast, other parties have taken more steps.”

“If other countries take relevant measures,” he said, “China will have to retaliate.”

Experts say the Philippines has been more transparent about its issues in the South China Sea under Marcos, who is less friendly toward China than under his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

The Philippines is also reaching out to other allies in the region such as Japan and Australia, the latter of which is also considering joint maritime patrols.

“They’re trying very hard to internationalize this concern, which I think works in their favor,” Powell said.

An island in the South China Sea, over most of which Beijing claims sovereignty.
An island in the South China Sea, over most of which Beijing claims sovereignty. Janice McKay Fryer / NBC News

Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro said this week, China is overtaking the US in building warships, with about 340 ships now and a target of 440 by 2030. In comparison, the US Navy initially had about 293 ships. 2020, according to a report by the Department of Defense.

“They’ve got a big fleet now, so they’re deploying that fleet globally,” del Toro said Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, adding that the US Navy needs to increase capacity in response.

Powell agreed that both the US and its allies would need to upgrade their fleets to compete with China, which has a major advantage in the South China Sea, he said, allowing it to “flood the zone” with its security ships. has the capability.

“At some point, the number of ships really matters,” he said. “You can’t have a presence without ships.”

But the US also has an advantage, Powell said, which is that it is not acting alone.

“China, when it looks outside and sees ships, has to think of the US and its allies and partners,” he said, “whereas China doesn’t really have partners and allies.”



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