A Chinese military aircraft had a near miss with a US Navy surveillance plane near a contested reef in the South China Sea, the US Pacific Command has said.
The two planes came within 1,000 feet of each other during the incident near Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both the Philippines and China.
The “unsafe” close encounter comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China over Beijing’s moves to bolster its presence in the disputed waters by building artificial islands.
“An interaction characterised by US Pacific Command as ‘unsafe’ occurred in international airspace above the South China Sea between a Chinese KJ-200 aircraft and a US Navy P-3C aircraft,” said US Pacific Command spokesman Rob Shuford.
“The US Navy P-3C was on a routine mission operating in accordance with international law.”
Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said the Chinese plane “crossed the nose” of the American aircraft, forcing it to “make an immediate turn”.
“We don’t see any evidence that it was intentional,” he said, adding that the incident appeared to be a “one-off”.
“Clearly we have our disagreements with China over the militarisation of the South China Sea,” he said, adding that interactions between ships and planes are “largely professional and safe”.
Philippine Defence Department spokesman Arsenio Andolong also expressed concern because the incident happened near Scarborough Shoal, which is located within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
“We’re worried of possible miscalculation and it’s good to know that nothing untoward happened,” he said, adding that if foreign aircraft ventured into Philippine airspace, “we deserved to be told out of courtesy”.
The KJ-200 is an airborne early warning and command plane, while the P-3 is a maritime surveillance aircraft.
The Pacific Command said it would address the issue “in appropriate diplomatic and military channels”.
A Chinese defence ministry official has said that the Chinese pilot had been responding “legally and professionally” to the US plane when it approached the aircraft.
“We hope that the US could take the bilateral military relations into consideration and adopt practical measures to eliminate the root cause of air and sea mishaps between the two countries”, the unnamed official said.
President Trump’s administration so far has taken a tough line on China’s claims, insisting it will defend international interests in the region.
During his confirmation hearings, new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the threat of blocking China’s access to the contested islands, and Steve Bannon is also on record saying that there is “no doubt” about war breaking out over control of the region.
Under the previous administration, Washington was neutral on the question of sovereignty, but maintained regular patrols to ensure freedom of movement through the waters.
China has faced opposition from Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Philippines over its territorial claims. Last year, Manila took China to the Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which ruled in the Philippines’ favour.
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However, in an effort to build ties with Beijing, President Duterte has pedalled back on his country’s claim to the territory, despite saying during the election campaign that he would ride a jet-ski to the islands to personally plant a flag.
Simultaneously, he has appeared to distance himself from his traditional allies in Washington.