The American newspaper Stars and Stripes reported last month that a WC-135 had been deployed to the United States military base at Okinawa, Japan, in preparation for a possible sixth nuclear test by North Korea. Such a test has not taken place, although North Korea on Sunday launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile in a test that was described as successful by American missile experts.
The American protest over the military maneuver by the Chinese jets on Wednesday appeared to be the first since President Trump took office.
After his meeting with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, last month, Mr. Trump stressed that he believed China would exert extra pressure on North Korea, its ally, to change course and modify its nuclear weapons program.
But China has indicated that it has done all that it can and that it is now up to the United States to accept China’s advice and negotiate with North Korea. “Pressure must be coupled with direct talks with the D.P.R.K.,” the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, wrote in an essay in USA Today this month, using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.
The maneuvers by the Chinese jets near the American aircraft may have been prompted by concerns that the United States was spying on Chinese military hardware and bases inside China, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
The deployment of the aircraft ostensibly to search for evidence of a North Korean nuclear test may have been considered by the Chinese as an excuse for spying, he said.
“Maybe the Chinese side suspects the reconnaissance plane not only wanted to know about North Korea, but wanted to know what’s going on in China with advanced military equipment,” Mr. Shi said.
It was also possible, he said, that China had decided to enforce the parameters of the “air defense identification zone” that Beijing declared over the East China Sea in 2013. The United States has refused to recognize the zone, which includes the airspace over disputed islands that both China and Japan claim to be theirs. The islands are called the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China.
China has demanded that foreign aircraft operating within the zone declare their whereabouts. In response, Washington has said that the Senkaku fall under the jurisdiction of the United States’ mutual defense treaty with Japan, a stance affirmed by Vice President Mike Pence during his recent visit to Tokyo.
The Chinese may be taking advantage of what they sense to be Mr. Trump’s weakening political position, Mr. Shi said.
“Trump, because of his domestic political weakness, does not want to have trouble with China,” he said. “This may be to show that Trump dare not harm the China relationship.”
Colonel Hodge said that United States military aircraft routinely flew through international airspace throughout the Asia-Pacific region and that the flight over the East China Sea was no exception.
During the Obama administration, the United States and China established rules of engagement for air-to-air encounters that were supposed to lead to discussions between the two militaries in the event of an incident like the one on Wednesday.
Colonel Hodge indicated that the incident would be handled under the terms of that agreement.
The United States reported two intercepts by Chinese military aircraft against American planes in 2016. And in February, a United States Navy P-3 Orion aircraft and a Chinese surveillance aircraft were involved in what a United States Pacific Command spokesman called an “unsafe” encounter over the South China Sea, a situation where the Chinese plane came close to the American plane, but not as dangerously close as the incident on Wednesday.
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