WASHINGTON — The Pentagon on Friday blamed China for instigating a dangerous mid-air encounter with a U.S. military aircraft off the coast of China, saying that a Chinese fighter jet made several threatening passes in an attempt to block its flight.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the U.S. government filed a formal complaint with China about what he called a "dangerous intercept" of a Navy Poseidon P-8 patrol aircraft about 130 miles east of Hainan Island. The incident occurred on Tuesday, he said.
Kirby said the Chinese fighter jet brought one of its wingtips within 20 feet of the Poseidon, performed a "barrel roll" at close range and also flashed past the nose of the U.S. aircraft at a 90-degree angle with its underside exposed, apparently "to make a point of showing its weapons."
"This kind of behavior, not only is unprofessional, it's unsafe," Kirby told reporters.
The risky incident was the latest in a series of near-misses between Chinese and American ships and aircraft as both countries have sought to assert their military might in the East China and South China seas.
It also called to mind a 2001 mid-air collision, also near Hainan Island, between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter jet. In that case, the Chinese fighter also tried to intercept the U.S. plane by buzzing past at close range, but crashed into it instead, according to U.S. accounts. China, in turn, cast blame on the Americans.
The Chinese pilot was killed. The U.S. aircraft was badly damaged, and its crew made a miraculous landing on Hainan. The Chinese military detained the U.S. crew for 10 days before they were released and seized sensitive material from the aircraft.
Kirby said the Pentagon waited three days to publicly acknowledge Tuesday's incident to give it time to register its protest and seek a response from China's People's Liberation Army. But he said no response was forthcoming.
"You're not supposed to do a barrel roll over an aircraft," Kirby said. "I think the message that they are apparently trying to send was ⅛to prevent3/8 the flight of this patrol aircraft. The message we're sending back to China is that's unacceptable and unhelpful to the military relationship that we would like to have with them."