The Pentagon on Wednesday rejected China’s demand that all U.S. surveillance flights near China be halted after two Chinese fighter jets recently intercepted an American U-2 spy plane over the Taiwan Strait.
“We will continue to fly these missions in international airspace as a matter of freedom of navigation,” said Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
China’s Defense Ministry demanded an end to the U.S. military flights, according to a report Wednesday in the Global Times newspaper, part of the Communist Party-controlled news media.
“We demand that the U.S. respect China’s sovereignty and security interests, and take concrete measures to boost a healthy and stable development of military relations,” the ministry said.
Chinese military expert Song Xiaojun told the newspaper that China can legitimately interrupt the flights. “Sending flights to intercept spying activities is essential to show China’s resolution to defend its sovereignty,” he said.
In China, such comments reflect official policy.
The Chinese demand followed this week’s disclosure of one of the most aggressive challenges by China to U.S. reconnaissance flights in months.
According to U.S. defense officials, two Chinese Su-27 jets chased a U-2 aircraft over the Taiwan Strait on June 29, and one jet crossed over the dividing line between Taiwan and the mainland along the 100-mile-wide waterway.
It was reportedly the first time since 1999 that a Chinese jet crossed over the line.
Two Taiwanese F-16s were scrambled to intercept the Chinese jet, which returned to the other side of the median line.
Col. Lapan’s statement echoed earlier remarks by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the U.S. military would not back down from conducting surveillance flights.
Adm. Mullen said he discussed the reconnaissance flights during a recent visit to China and at earlier talks in Washington with Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff.
“This is international airspace, in this case, and we won’t be deterred from flying in international airspace,” he said.
Adm. Mullen said halting the reconnaissance flights and giving in to Chinese demands would violate long-established international rules for freedom of navigation.
“The Chinese would see us move out of there,” he said. “I don’t see that as the case. We’re not going to do that, from my perspective. These reconnaissance flights are important.”
U.S. military and civilian intelligence agencies for decades have gained valuable data by listening in to communications and intercepting other Chinese electronic data, ranging from military activities to signals from weapons, U.S. officials have said.
The gathering of intelligence on China’s military remains a high priority for U.S. spy agencies.
Adm. Mullen said the issue remains a major difference between the two militaries.
“The Chinese don’t like our routine reconnaissance flights in international air space, and we don’t like any attempt to inhibit freedom of navigation and access to the global commons, to include international waters and airspace,” he said.
Care is needed in conducting the flights, which often are launched out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa or from bases in South Korea.
“We have to be careful about the intercepts [of the flights],” Adm. Mullen said. “We have to make sure that we don’t repeat what happened in 2001.”
In April 2001, a Chinese J-8 jet intercepted an American EP-3 flight near the Chinese coast and flew too close, causing a collision.
The Chinese pilot died when his jet crashed into the sea. The 23 U.S. crew members nearly perished, but made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island, where they were held captive for 11 days.
China then stripped the aircraft of its sensitive gear and forced the Pentagon to cut up the aircraft and ship it out of the country in pieces.
“These are our lives that are at stake up there, in addition to creating an incident, whether it’s in the air like that or in the South China Sea, that escalates the tension over there and could put countries in a position to miscalculate, go in the wrong direction with respect to stability and peaceful resolution of these kinds of things,” Adm. Mullen said.
The Joint Chiefs chairman told reporters after his recent visit to China that “stark” differences remain between the two militaries, despite efforts to try and develop closer ties.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman-designate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in written answers to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee made public this week that the Pentagon is taking steps to bolster forces and alliances against China.
“Force posture, presence, capability developments and actions that strengthen our alliances and partnerships will demonstrate our ability and commitment to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific,” he said when asked how the U.S. should respond to China’s military buildup.