Chinese Fighter Jets Intercept US Plane: Is Beijing Provoking War?

A Chinese Su-27 Flanker fighter makes a fly by while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, visits with members of the Chinese Air Force at Anshan Airfield, China Mar. 24, 2007. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen (released)

Two Chinese fighter jets got dangerously close to a US surveillance aircraft over the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, according to the Pentagon.

Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza told NBC News on Wednesday that two J-11 Shenyang fighter jets came within 50 feet of a Navy EP-3 Orion aircraft.

The latest incident came a week after China scrambled three fighter jets when a US Navy destroyer came within 12 miles of one of China’s largest artificial islands.

China has built a total of 3,000 acres worth of artificial islands in the South China Sea. Some have military-capable airstrips and at least one is loaded with missile launchers. China claims most of the region. Its neighbors including The Philippines also claim parts of this strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars in trade pass each year.

In a Forbes article, geopolitical analyst Tim Daiss called it “one of the most important oil and natural gas transport choke points in the world.”

The US says China’s vast claims threaten freedom of navigation in the region and it often deploys ships close to China’s artificial islands in maneuvers that enrage Beijing.

The US does not recognize China’s claims and it often sends its Navy into the region to uphold freedom of navigation.

A US defense official described the latest move as a “routine mission” in “international airspace.” Nonetheless, Beijing is quick to denounce such acts claiming they violate its security.

“It needs to be pointed out that American aircraft have constantly entered China’s coastal waters conducting reconnaissance, which has posed a serious threat to China’s maritime and air safety,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei, at a press briefing Thursday.

Despite China’s well documented outrage at these kinds of maneuvers, Quartz Asia Correspondent Steve Mollman argues that Beijing is actually welcoming them as justification to militarize the South China Sea, and wage war against its enemies, which include US allies.

“All any nation needs to go to war is a good provocation, and China is no exception,” Mollman wrote in a Quartz article this week. “With its sweeping territorial claims, island-building, militarization, patriotic fervor, and prickly rhetoric, Beijing is setting itself up to be repeatedly provoked in the South China Sea. It might even be counting on it.”

China’s Defense Ministry said the latest incident “again proves that China’s construction of defensive facilities on the relevant reefs in the Nansha islands is completely reasonable and totally necessary.”