- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2011

Two Chinese warplanes intercepted an American spy plane over the tense Taiwan Strait last month in China’s most aggressive challenge to U.S. surveillance flights since a 2001 collision that touched off an international crisis.

According to defense officials, the intercept took place June 29. The two Chinese jets flew from a base in China to head off an Air Force U-2 spy plane over the dividing line in the 100-mile wide Taiwan Strait.

“In general, these reconnaissance flights are conducted in international airspace, as are the PRC [Chinese] intercepts, which happen fairly routinely,” said a Pentagon official familiar with the incident.

“There is no ‘repel’ aspect to them,” he said of reports from Asia that the Chinese jets had “repelled” the U-2 flight during the intercept.

A Pacific Command spokesman declined to provide details of the incident other than to say it occurred June 29 as the Air Force was conducting a routine operation in international airspace in the area of the East China Sea.

Other officials said the U-2 had taken off from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa as part of a routine surveillance program of China.

The Chinese Su-27 jets tried to follow the U-2 as it flew south along the western dividing line on the Taiwan Strait.

According to the officials, at one point the Su-27s split up in pursuing the U-2. One jet turned back before crossing the median line, and the second continued across the line until two Taiwanese F-16s took off to intercept it.

It is not known how the Su-27s were able to follow the U-2, which normally flies at much higher altitudes than the warplanes.

The officials said the U-2 aborted its flight and returned to its base upon being alerted to the Su-27 interceptors.

The officials discussed some details of the incident Monday after they were reported in Taiwan’s United Daily News and the Financial Times.

It was the first time Chinese warplanes crossed the line since 1999 and the closest encounter between a U.S. surveillance aircraft and Chinese interceptors since a Chinese J-8 jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 surveillance jet in April 2001, setting off an international crisis.

In the 2001 case, China held a U.S. air crew captive for 11 days after the damaged EP-3 made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island after the collusion. The Chinese pilot died after crashing in the sea. The Navy blamed the Chinese pilot for flying too close to the EP-3.

Disclosure of the June 29 aerial encounter comes amid growing tensions over Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea. In recent weeks China has clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines over sovereignty claims in the sea, which is believed to hold large energy resources and is a strategic transit point.

U.S. officials have said China, after a year of relative calm, began asserting questionable territorial rights in waters around its shores. Beijing has claimed most of the South China Sea as a “core interest” and has refused to hold international talks to resolve disputes.

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