WASHINGTON—Two Chinese jet fighters intercepted an American reconnaissance aircraft flying over the South China Sea in what U.S. defense officials characterized as a potentially unsafe maneuver.
The incident comes as tension increases between Washington and Beijing over the disputed waterway, a critical fishing and trade hub in Asia.
If a final U.S. review of the incident deems the Chinese maneuver unsafe, it would mark the first such dangerous midair encounter between U.S. and Chinese aircraft over the sea since 2014.
“We are reviewing a May 17 intercept of a U.S. maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft by two tactical aircraft from the People’s Republic of China,” said Capt. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the Pentagon.
“The incident occurred in international airspace during a routine U.S. patrol in the South China Sea,” Capt. Davis said. “Initial reports characterized the incident as unsafe.”
According to a U.S. defense official, one of the two J-11 Chinese jet fighters flew about 50 feet from the U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane over the northern end of the South China Sea, causing the American pilot to drop altitude out of concern.
Capt. Davis said the U.S. was addressing the issue through appropriate diplomatic and military channels.
China lays claim to the South China Sea, which includes an array of islands, rocks and reefs, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei contest that claim in full or in part.
The Chinese military in recent years has asserted its claim more aggressively in parts of the sea. A recent Pentagon report found that China reclaimed more than 3,200 acres of land over two years in the Spratly Islands, one of the main archipelagoes in the sea.
China built harbors, surveillance systems, communications infrastructure, three airfields and logistics facilities in the archipelago, according to the Pentagon report, which accused Beijing of using “coercive tactics short of armed conflict” to assert its territorial claims.
A representative for the Chinese Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment about the May 17 intercept.
Zhu Haiquan, a spokesman for the embassy, said in a statement last week that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands. He accused the U.S. of “playing up the South China Sea issue to beef up its forward military deployment and flex its muscles.”
In response to China’s moves in the region, the U.S. Department of Defense has stepped up its support for the Philippines, which also lays claim to parts of the sea, by arranging joint patrols and establishing a rotating American military presence at five bases in the country.
The U.S. has also been conducting regular freedom of navigation operations in the sea—patrols designed to send Washington’s message that the waterway should remain open to all maritime traffic in the face of the disputes.
During those patrols, Chinese ships and aircraft have regularly made their presence known to their U.S. counterparts, a well-worn game of military-to-military signaling that usually remains safe.
Capt. Davis said the U.S. and China had reduced the risk of an incident by improving dialogue between the American and Chinese armed forces.
“Over the past year, we have seen improvements in (China’s) actions, flying in a safe and professional manner,” Capt. Davis said.