- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Pentagon said Wednesday that two Chinese fighter jets had a dangerous confrontation with a U.S. patrol plane over international waters the previous day.

In a statement first reported by ABC News, the Defense Department said it was investigating the Tuesday incident, which it said occurred in international airspace over the South China Sea.

“Initial reports characterized the incident as unsafe,” the U.S. military statement said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza told NBC News on Wednesday that a Navy EP-3 Orion surveillance aircraft was conducting a routine mission when  J-11 Shenyang fighters intercepted the Navy spy plane and flew within 50 feet of it.

Lt. Col. Baldanza specified that the engagement was under investigation by U.S. Pacific Command.

Chinese commanders ordered a team of fighter jets into the skies above the Fiery Cross reef near the Spratly Islands after the USS William P. Lawrence conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” near the Fiery Cross reef in the disputed waterways earlier this month.

Defense officials in Washington argue that the runway on the Fiery Cross reef was one of several military installations China had built up on artificial “islands” in the South China Sea, designed as launching pads to deter challenges to its territorial claims by the United States and other regional powers and to bolster its case to ownership under international maritime law.

Confrontations between U.S. and Chinese military forces have become diplomatic incidents in recent years, including a 2001 mid-air collision between a U.S. patrol aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet. The smaller Chinese plane was destroyed and its pilot killed, while the American plane was sufficiently damaged that it had to make an emergency landing at the nearest airfield — on the Chinese island of Hainan.

The resulting standoff saw the American crew held by China for more than a week while demanding an apology from the U.S. It only ended with an ambiguously worded diplomatic statement. The plane was returned to the American military only after having been disassembled and sent through Russian intermediaries.

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