Chinese Pilots Push Back at US Spy Planes

The spate of aggressive aerial intercepts between China and patrolling American and Japanese aircraft over the South and East China Seas this past summer seem to be part of a deliberate campaign by Beijing to change the international rules that govern free passage through near-by waters and airspace.

In the latest incident on August 11, a Chinese jet fighter encountered a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft over international waters about 220 kilometers from Hainan island. That was only the first published account. The Pentagon later said that there had been three earlier and similar encounters this year.

At the same time, Japan reported that its surveillance aircraft had dangerous airborne encounters with Chinese interceptors in May and June in the skies over the East China Sea where the two countries are embroiled in a territorial dispute over uninhabited rocky islets.

Washington and Tokyo do not complain about the intercepts per se, only aggressive behavior of the Chinese pilots, who flew as close as 20 meters to their planes. In the Aug 11 incident the Chinese Su-27 reportedly did an acrobatic maneuver known as a barrel role round the P-8, making sure that the American pilots understood that it was armed with air-to-air missile.

These are the kinds of maneuvers usually associated with acrobatic units, such as the Navy’s Blue Angels, that perform at air shows, requiring pilots of great skill.

Some Americans profess to believe that these intercepts represent the risky behavior of relatively low ranking commanders, in short “rogue pilots” They note that only a relatively small number of such encounters have put American or Japanese aircraft at risk (actually, at least six such encounters of the dangerous kind during the past year.)

But Beijing makes no apologies for their pilots’ behavior and no secret that the object of the exercises is to persuade both countries to cease spying on their coastline and maritime maneuvers.

“If the United States really hopes to avoid impacting bilateral relations, the best course is to reduce or halt close surveillance of China,” said Defense Ministry spokesman, Yang Yujun.

Yet the aerial standoff comes at a time when Washington evidently believes that surveillance is even more vital than ever. These encounters take place near Hainan island, which is the home port for the new Jin Class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines, which are beginning their first patrols in 2014.

Each Jin-Class submarine can carry a dozen J-L nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles with a range of more than 4,000 miles. The jingoistic Global Times newspaper in Beijing out-jingoed itself in October, 2013, with a story on the new submarines being capable of killing or wounding five to twelve million Americans.

The newspaper was overcome by the “awesomeness” of this new nuclear deterrence capability, even publishing a map showing the more immediate potential devastation of the US west coast in a chilling example of nuclear bravado. The possibility of any kind of conflict escalating to the nuclear level, would certainly give Washington pause.

With just this in mind, Washington recently moved a squadron of P-8 surveillance aircraft to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, presumably to keep better track of these submarines. The P-8 is a modified Boeing 737 crammed with electronic gear. At the same time, the Chinese have the added incentive to keep snoopy Americas at a distance while concealing their undersea movements.

Retired Chinese Rear Admiral Zhang Zhouzhong, who comments frequently on Chinese television from a decidedly anti-American point of view, called for even more close aerial encounters. The surveillance flights are, he maintained a “knife at the throat” of China’s only real nuclear deterrence.

To a large degree Washington’s thinking is still stuck in the Cold War era. At that time, both America and Russia had a kind of unwritten agreement to spy on each other. Soviet ships and aircraft operated along the U.S. border routinely, being careful to stay out of the 12-mile sovereignty zone. A Russian “trawler” was usually positioned off Cape Canaveral, Florida to monitor US rocket launches.

The Chinese, in fact, operate their own Dongdiao-class surveillance ships. One such ship monitored the recent Rim-Pac naval exercise off the coast of Hawaii in which Chinese warships were invited to participate. It may have been the only case where a country spied on a military exercise in which it played an active part.

Washington complacently believed that the I-spy-on-you, and you-spy-on-me kind of deal it had with the Russians for so many years was automatically applied to its relations with China. That is not necessarily the case.

The US assumes that China observes all of the established rules of international passage in marine waters, whereas Beijing is trying to change them. Under current rules, each country’s international boundary extends 12 nautical miles out to sea. The US and Japan scrumptiously observe this boundary.

But also under international rules all countries with a coastline can claim a 200-mile exclusive economic (EEZ) zone where it can exclusively exploit marine or underwater recourses such as fish or undersea petroleum deposits. Here all countries enjoy “innocent passage” through the zone so long as they don’t poach on resources.

The Chinese, however, say there is nothing “innocent” about American spy flights. Says Wendell Minnick, Asia editor of Defense News: “There is a strong sense in China that the U.S. has abused the definition of ‘innocent passage.’

Put another way, “US spy planes are not there sightseeing”, said Wang Dong, director of the School of International Relations at Peking University.

Yet the Chinese make no great secret of their ultimate aim, which is simply to push the American and Japanese aircraft away from their coastline. The Chinese have long objected to these flights -- the two have had clashes as far back as 2000 - but only recently were they strong enough to try and stop them altogether.