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.
The Chinese also threatened Japan into releasing a Chinese fishing boat captain who had been detained for fishing illegally near Japan’s Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
Informal guidelines on maritime behavior were agreed to recently between China and several Southeast Asian states last week at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but China has yet for formalize a code of conduct.
The Su-27 incident also comes amid a debate between Congress and the Obama administration over whether to sell Taiwan advanced F-16 jets to bolster the island’s air forces.
The administration opposes the sale of 66 F-16 C/D models over concerns it will upset China, which twice in recent years cut off military relations with the Pentagon to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Congress has strongly supported the F-16 sale, under a 1979 law the allows defense arms sales to Taiwan and to boost jobs that would be created by the arms sale.
Communist China has long claimed Taiwan as its territory, but the island nation has asserted its independence from the mainland.
A second defense official said the incident highlights the failures of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s detente policies for mainland China. Increasing cross-strait commercial flights have made it more difficult for Taiwan military’s to monitor airspace over the region. Mr. Ma’s conciliatory policies also have not lessened military tensions or improved Taiwanese defenses, the official said.
“TECRO has not lobbied very strongly for new F-16s or the upgrades of old jets,” the defense official said, using the acronym for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representive Office, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington.
John Tkacik, a former State Department intelligence specialist on China, said that since 2007 Chinese fighter jets have been flying close to the dividing line in the Strait, prompting Taiwanese fighters to scramble.
“Filling the airspace with supersonic military jets always complicates air traffic controls, and the Chinese should have an interest in keeping things calm, but they’re now acting as though it’s in their interests to demonstrate who’s boss in the Taiwan Strait, and things can only get ugly from here on,” Mr. Tkacik said.
U.S. military reconnaissance flights frequently transit the Strait and have kept away from the Chinese side of the center line, but the military “has always insisted on freedom of navigation in the Strait,” he said.
China’s military has called on the Pentagon to halt all U.S. reconnaissance flights along China’s coasts, claiming the flights violate Chinese sovereignty.
The Pentagon in the past has rejected the complaints, asserting that the flights take place in international airspace.
Taiwan officials sought to play down the incident. “This was not between Taiwan and China, but between China and the U.S.,” said a senior Taiwanese defense official told the Financial Times.
“The Chinese crossed the line to repel a perceived intrusion by a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.”