After initially refusing to provide details, the Pentagon on Tuesday confirmed that a Chinese jet made an unsafe pass near a U.S. RC-135 surveillance jet last week.
"I can confirm for you that the department's reviewing a report that came in from [U.S. Pacific Command] regarding a Sept. 15 intercept of a U.S. RC-135 by an aircraft from the People's Republic of China," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters.
The incident was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
Cook said the RC-135 was flying some 80 miles east of the Shandong Peninsula over the Yellow Sea when the Chinese aircraft conducted an intercept that "was perceived as unsafe by the RC-135 air crew."
He said the incident is under investigation but there is no indication it involved a near-collision.
However, Cook declined to say how close the Chinese jet came as it passed in front of the RC-135.
Asked to explain what was unsafe about the encounter, Cook said it was less dangerous than the August 2014 intercept between a Chinese J-11 interceptor and Navy P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. During that intercept the Chinese pilot did a barrel roll over the top of the P-8.
"My understanding is, and I don't have all the details, but the pilot believed that the plane passed in an unsafe fashion in front of the plane," Cook said, noting that it was not similar to the earlier event.
"The pilot reported that he felt like the plane, the aircraft, passed in front of his nose in an unsafe fashion," he said, declining to provide further details.
On Capitol Hill, senior members said the latest incident highlights China’s coercive behavior with U.S. aircraft.
"Yet another dangerous Chinese intercept of a U.S. aircraft last week shows that China feels emboldened to continue its pattern of aggressive behavior in the Asia-Pacific region," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.).
"That this flight came amid negotiations of rules for air-to-air encounters and just one week ahead of President Xi’s arrival in the United States raises further questions about China’s intentions and the Obama administration’s response thus far."
The Sept. 15 incident contradicts comments by White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice who said Monday that confidence-building measures with China had reduced dangerous U.S.-China encounters.
Rice, in a speech at George Washington University, said an agreement concluded during Obama’s visit to China last year was designed to reduce "the risk of unintended incidents."
"We’ve seen a marked improvement in operational safety since we signed these measures and believe this engagement is critical to avoid inadvertent escalation, while promoting constructive cooperation," Rice said.
She made no mention of the unsafe encounter between the Chinese jet and U.S. surveillance aircraft.
The Pentagon and Chinese military have been negotiating a formal agreement—not just the memorandum of understanding reached in Beijing last November—meant to govern aerial intercepts.
China, however, is demanding that all U.S. surveillance flights near China’s coasts be halted.
The Pentagon has rejected the flight ban. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last week that the United States would continue to sail and fly throughout the region.
In the House, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Sea Power, also criticized China for the dangerous intercept.
"Even on the eve of their president's visit to Washington, China is again behaving as a destabilizing force in the international system," Forbes said.
"Despite the 2014 memorandum of understanding affirming China’s commitment to ensure the safety of military aircraft in the event of an unplanned encounter, Beijing continues to harass U.S. aircraft conducting lawful missions far from Chinese territory," he added.
Forbes said the latest aerial incident should be a reminder to the Obama administration about the importance of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, "another area where China hopes to use threats and bullying to change the facts on the ground."
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kansas), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, criticized the administration’s response to the incident.
"The persistent expansion of Chinese influence—whether the attacks are on our networks or our peaceful exercise of our rights to fly in international airspace—have been met with a consistent, ‘Hey, don't do that again please,’" Pompeo said.
"This will not stop Chinese aggression. The U.S. response must be quick, sure and forceful," he said.