Video released by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command shows the Chinese J-11 fighter closing in quickly on the B-52, passing in front of and below the American jet’s wing, over the South China Sea on Tuesday. The encounter happened at night, officials said. “We are concerned this pilot was unaware of how close he came to causing a collision,” the command said in a statement.
“It’s a dangerous move — too close and completely unprofessional,” said Charlie “Tuna” Moore, a retired Air Force fighter pilot.
The incident comes a week after the Pentagon released a series of videos showing what U.S. officials called unsafe Chinese air intercepts from the past year and a half. The surge in such coercive maneuvers is all the more concerning, Pentagon officials say, as Beijing has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. attempts to restart military-to-military channels of communication designed to prevent such encounters.
The video’s disclosure also coincides with the arrival in Washington of China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, who will be meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in advance of an expected bilateral summit between China’s Xi Jinping and President Biden next month in San Francisco. The topic of the stalled military communications is likely to be discussed, officials said.
Moore, now a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, said that the chance of disaster was greatly enhanced when the Chinese fighter jet was out of view of the U.S. pilot. “If the American plane needed to maneuver and they’re that close and can’t see [the Chinese aircraft], the opportunity for a collision goes up,” he said.
He also noted that the Chinese fighter flying that close to the larger American aircraft could encounter wake turbulence that could cause the two planes to collide.
Coming on the heels of last week’s video release and Pentagon condemnation of the incidents, the latest encounter is a clear rebuke from Beijing, Moore said.
“It’s a power play,” he said. “No doubt about it. They’re basically saying ‘we’re not going to be intimidated by the United States’” or its concerns about the Chinese military violating international air safety norms. “And that’s concerning,” he said. “They’re endangering lives.”
The Pentagon last week released its annual report on China’s military power, which included new statistics showing how the Chinese military has ramped up its aggressive behavior in the Pacific, conducting more than 180 risky intercepts of U.S. spy planes in the past two years — already more than in the previous decade. Similar encounters with U.S. allies and partners boost the number to nearly 300, officials said.
China’s bolder behavior, officials say, is an apparent effort to get the U.S. military to back down in a region that Beijing seeks to dominate.
In April 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a Navy EP-3, killing the Chinese pilot and causing the U.S. aircraft with 24 crew members to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, resulting in an international incident. The Americans were detained and interrogated for 11 days by Chinese authorities before being released.