A U.S. spy plane crossed into a no-fly zone in the Pacific on Tuesday and disrupted People’s Liberation Army drills, Chinese officials said in sharp accusations that mark yet another escalation of tensions between the two global powers.
China’s Defense Ministry said that an American U-2 aircraft engaged in a “purely provocative act” by entering a no-fly zone “enforced by the Northern Theater of the People’s Liberation Army.” U.S. military officials acknowledged the U-2 flight but said it was “within the accepted international rules and regulations governing aircraft flights.”
Beijing, however, cast the incident as dangerous and potentially deadly, and strongly suggested that the U.S. was attempting to surveil Chinese military activities.
“The move severely encroached on China’s sovereignty, heavily interrupted China’s ordinary military operations and could easily cause misjudgment and even result in accidents,” the Chinese Defense Ministry said on its website.
Chinese officials also vowed to take “concrete actions” to defend the country’s sovereignty in the future.
In its own statement late Tuesday, U.S. Pacific Air Forces strongly disputed China’s characterization of the flight while also vowing to continue such operations.
“A U-2 sortie was conducted in the Indo-Pacific area of operations and within the accepted international rules and regulations governing aircraft flights,” the statement reads. “Pacific Air Forces personnel will continue to fly and operate anywhere international law allows, at the time and tempo of our choosing.”
Neither side made clear exactly where the incident took place, but the PLA reportedly is conducting live-fire drills this week in the Bohai Sea, South China Sea, and elsewhere. The South China Sea in particular has been at the center of continued disputes between Washington and Beijing, with China claiming much of the strategically vital area as its own territory.
The U.S. disputes those claims and has routinely held freedom of navigation exercises in the region. Over the July 4 weekend, for example, both nations held major naval drills in the South China Sea, raising fears of an accident or miscalculation that could spark a greater conflict between the two countries.
While the Pentagon hasn’t yet confirmed the report, U.S. reconnaissance flights previously have been the source of major international incidents.
In April 2001, an American aircraft collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The 24 U.S. crew members were detained by Chinese authorities before ultimately being released.