Military incidents are on the rise in the South China Sea: Again and again, fighter jets or warships of the USA and China come dangerously close to each other. There is currently no military dialogue.
Frankfurt/Washington/Beijing – The South China Sea has once again become the scene of a military incident between China and the United States. Washington released a video on Wednesday showing a Chinese fighter jet in dangerous proximity to a U.S. reconnaissance plane. The Chinese J16 jet had already clamped close to the American aircraft on Friday. As a result, the U.S. pilot was forced to steer through invisible turbulence – the so-called "wake vortex" of the Chinese jet.
The U.S. Pacific Command has now criticized the Chinese pilot's flight as an "unnecessarily aggressive interception maneuver." The flight of the U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance jet was a "safe and routine mission" in international airspace.
China's Foreign Ministry rejected this account on Wednesday, instead accusing the U.S. of posing a "serious danger." "The provocative and dangerous maneuvers of the United States are the cause of the problems of maritime security," said spokeswoman Mao Ning.
Danger zone South China Sea: Repeated near-collisions
More and more dangerous situations are occurring over the South China Sea. Most recently, according to the US broadcaster CNN, the US Pacific Command noted "an alarming increase in the number of risky interception maneuvers by Chinese aircraft". In December 2022, a Chinese J11 jet rushed past the tip of an American RC-20 aircraft only about 135 feet – the equivalent of just under seven meters – during an interception maneuver.
And in February, a CNN team involuntarily witnessed an incident near the Paracel archipelago claimed by China and Vietnam. At the time, the U.S. pilot received a radio warning: "American aircraft: Chinese airspace covers twelve nautical miles. Don't get any closer or you'll be fully responsible." After that, a Chinese fighter jet armed with air-to-air missiles appeared next to the U.S. plane and escorted the machine to port for about 15 minutes, according to journalists who also filmed the incident. At times, the jet was so close that you could see the faces of the pilots, it was said at the time.
South China Sea: Dangerous Incidents
The South China Sea is one of the most important trade routes in the world; there are also rich fishing grounds and raw material deposits. As a result, riparian states such as Vietnam or the Philippines make overlapping territorial claims around mostly uninhabited atolls in the region. China, however, claims virtually the entire body of water and has turned several of the reefs controlled by Beijing into islands. Some of them are now home to Chinese military bases or ports. In 2016, the International Court of Justice rejected China's far-reaching claims and upheld a lawsuit filed by the Philippines. However, Beijing does not recognize the verdict and refers to historical nautical charts.
Ships also come very close to each other again and again. In March, for example, the Chinese Coast Guard asked the U.S. destroyer "USS Milius" to leave waters near the Spratly Archipelago, which is claimed by several states. The "USS Milius" had "illegally" entered Chinese territorial waters and had "disturbed the peace and stability in the region," it said. The U.S., on the other hand, declared the voyage of its destroyer a routine mission in international waters.
Risky radio silence between the military
For years, experts have warned that any incident of this kind between fighter jets or warships of the two great powers could almost accidentally trigger a military conflict. Therefore, there is an urgent need for a fixed channel of communication between Washington and Beijing. But China suspended the bilateral military dialogue after the trip to Taiwan by then-US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in August 2022. In November, Washington's National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called on China for the first time to resume military dialogue: "We believe that military-to-military communication can help create more stability andreduce the risk of misunderstandings," Sullivan said at the time. "We're hoping to get this back on track."
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Recently, the US also asked for a meeting between the two Defense Ministers Lloyd Austin and Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore next weekend. But Beijing declined the invitation. "The U.S. knows exactly why the military dialogue between China and the U.S. is encountering difficulties," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing. The US, according to Mao, should "immediately correct its wrong practices, show sincerity and create the necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between the two militaries." One of the stumbling blocks is U.S. sanctions against Li, who, as head of the People's Liberation Army's weapons technology department, was involved in the purchase of fighter jets from Russia in 2018.
U.S. and China: No conflict resolution without communication
Relations between the two great powers are at an all-time low. The urgency of functioning communication is shown by the only fatal collision between two aircraft of the two great powers more than 20 years ago. On April 1, 2001, a Chinese pilot failed to fly close to a larger U.S. spy plane near the Chinese coast. A collision occurred; the Chinese jet crashed, the pilot was killed. The U.S. plane with a crew of 24 had to make an emergency landing on China's tropical island of Hainan.
A political crisis followed, which in the end was resolved by a letter: the US ambassador closely coordinated the wording with the Chinese side. It said that the U.S. "deeply regretted" the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei and the intrusion into Chinese airspace without verbal authorization. It was a verbal balancing act that did justice to both sides in the end. After eleven days and complicated diplomatic efforts, the crew was able to leave the country. But they had to leave the plane on Hainan; it was investigated by the Chinese military.