Pentagon: No Plan to Reduce Spy Flights

Chinese general says interceptors should fly closer
A U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone

A U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone / AP

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The Pentagon on Tuesday rejected demands by China that the United States end all surveillance flights along China’s borders.

“We’re going to continue to fly in international airspace the way we’ve been, just like we’re going to continue to sail our ships in international waters the way we’ve been,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Chinese military commentators stepped up criticism of the U.S. military for the encounter Aug. 19 between a Navy P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft and a Chinese Su-27 interceptor jet and said more aggressive intercepts could be expected in the future.

The Pentagon said the jet flew within 20 feet of the P-8 in dangerous aerial maneuvers.

Kirby said the United States would not reduce its posture in the Pacific.

“The United States is a Pacific power; we have responsibilities—five of seven treaty alliances in the Pacific region,” he said. “We’re going to meet those security commitments. We want to do this in an open and transparent way. We want to share as much information with our allies and partners and with China as we can, and we want to do that. But none of that cooperation is aided along by that kind of reckless behavior by that particular pilot.”

One Chinese admiral said Chinese interceptors should fly closer to U.S. surveillance aircraft in future intercepts.

Rear Adm. Zhang Zhaozhong from the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University called for closer intimidating intercepts of U.S. aircraft. In the past, PLA jets lacked the technical capabilities were unable to put “enough pressure” on U.S. aircraft, he said, but now must apply more.

Zhang, quoted in the Party newspaper Global Times, also said China should begin surveillance flights of the United States in retaliation.

Other current and former Chinese military officials denounced U.S. surveillance flights in state-run media reports over the past several days.

Sr. Col. Li Li, also of the defense university, stated that China could not accept the Pentagon’s description of the flights as a routine mission and said intercepts would continue.

Retired PLA Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo said that the U.S. flights were legal under international law but characterized them as “dangerous and provocative.”

Chinese military efforts to thwart the surveillance flights were “reasonable,” he said.

Kirby said the incident was a setback for Obama administration efforts to develop closer military ties with the PLA, a goal outlined during a summit last year between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“It’s important that we continue to work at this relationship, absolutely,” Kirby said. “That is not made easier by incidents like we saw with the intercept of our P-8 patrol aircraft, which was on a routine mission in international airspace, and under no circumstances and under no rubric of military relations is it acceptable to fly a jet fighter around a reconnaissance airplane the way that was done.”

The Pentagon will continue to “look for avenues to try to increase the dialogue and the cooperation and the understanding and the transparency between our two countries, but again, that incident did nothing to help that along,” he said.

Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement Sunday that the Chinese J-11, Beijing’s designation for the Su-27, reacted to the flight of two Navy aircraft flying east of Hainan Island. Yang said the Chinese jet stayed a “safe distance.”

Yang said the United States should reduce the flights and eventually halt them.

Kirby on Friday, in harsh comments, called the Chinese pilot’s threatening aerial encounter “dangerous” and “unprofessional.” He called the Chinese jet’s maneuvers, including a barrel roll over the P-8, as posing a risk to the crew and violating international law.

The Chinese action was “very, very close; very dangerous,” Kirby said.

In response to the criticism, Yang said in the Defense Ministry statement that the U.S. charges were “totally groundless” and described U.S. military flights as “large-scale and high-frequency surveillance” that poses a threat to air and maritime safety.

At the Pentagon yesterday, Kirby rejected the spokesman’s comments. “We obviously take deep issue with that characterization of the incident,” he said.

Kirby said Navy officials will meet later this week with Chinese counterparts and he said he did not know “the degree to which this incident will come up” in the talk and referred questions to the Navy.

Last week, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeff Pool said in a statement that the Su-27 intercepted the P-8 135 miles east of Hainan Island.

“The intercept was aggressive and demonstrated a lack of due regard for the safety and well being of the U.S. and Chinese aircrews and aircraft,” Pool said.

“On three different occasions, the Chinese J-11 crossed directly under the U.S. aircraft with one pass having only 50 to 100 feet separation between the two aircraft,” Pool said. “The Chinese jet also passed the nose of the P-8 at 90 degrees with its belly toward the P-8 to show its weapons loadout.”

Pool said the pilot who conducted the intercept is based at the same Hainan Island unit that was linked to other aggressive aerial intercepts in March, April, and May.

“We are concerned that the intercepting crews from that unit are acting aggressively and demonstrating a lack of regard for the safety of our aircrews,” Pool said. “We have raised our concerns over this unsafe behavior to the PRC.”