The commander of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said during a news briefing Tuesday in Singapore that unsafe Chinese interceptions of US and allied aircraft had become more frequent.
Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, who leads the strategically important Indo-Pacific fleet, said during the briefing that while interactions overall remain “professional,” there has been a spike in unsafe interceptions by Chinese planes in recent months.
While approaching an airplane and taking pictures is considered normal mid-air interaction – and is done by the US military – Chinese planes have flown dangerously close to US and allied planes. These interactions are well outside the norms for behavior between aircraft, according to Thomas.
“There are things that are understood and the normal rules-based international order, how you work professionally,” Thomas said. “And then there are things that are provocative, and it’s the provocative nature of the Intercepts that draws our attention and we’re trying to understand.”
Several cases of unsafe interception by Chinese aircraft have been reported in recent months. In July, it was revealed that a Chinese warplane had unsafely intercepted a US special forces C-130 cargo plane. The Ministry of Defense did not comment on the exact actions taken by the Chinese jet.
US allies were also intercepted unsafely by Chinese planes. There have reportedly been more than two dozen unsafe interactions between Canadian and Chinese planes over international waters since December 2021. Australia also reported a “dangerous maneuver” on May 26, in which a Chinese plane released chaff while flying directly in front of an Australian P-8. The chaff intended to confuse an aircraft’s radar system entered the P-8’s engine.
“This reported increase in air is obviously of concern because it’s not a very forgiving environment when something goes wrong while flying mid-air,” Thomas said.
The increasing frequency of these wiretaps comes as tensions have risen over Taiwan’s status — and as China is working to bolster its claim to almost all of the South China Sea. Tensions between the US and China have escalated since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, as China fired an estimated 11 missiles in Taiwan’s waters.
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China has also continued to fly sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone to put pressure on the smaller country’s air force, which has to deploy jets at every incursion. In 2021, Chinese warplanes crossed Taiwan’s ADIZ 969 times, more than double the number in 2020.
The South China Sea has also been a flashpoint between the US and China — and was one of the reasons for such a Chinese response — Thomas said. Because of its claims in the sea, China has increased the size of islands or created entirely new ones, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ global conflict tracker. China has also built ports, airstrips and military installations, while further militarizing islands by stationing radar systems and cruise missiles on them.
Because some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes are at sea, the US and others have rejected China’s territorial claims. The US has asserted the right to freedom of navigation, citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. With China militarizing the sea or unsafely intercepting warplanes, the US must not be deterred, Thomas said.
“If you don’t question it, the problem is that it becomes the norm,” Thomas said. “And if you don’t question it and people just accept it, then suddenly people can claim that the entire South China Sea is their territorial sea… It’s so important that we challenge these kinds of things.”