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Chinese fighter jet harassed U.S. Air Force spy plane over South China Sea

A Chinese fighter jet performed an "unnecessarily aggressive maneuver" in an intercept of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft last week, according to a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command statement. 

The pilot of a Chinese J-16 fighter flew directly in front of — and within 400 feet of the nose of the RC-135 — forcing the U.S. aircraft to fly through its wake turbulence. The intercept occurred while the reconnaissance plane was operating in international air space over the South China Sea on May 26. 

"The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international law allows," the statement said. "We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law."

In Sweden Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. plane was flying on a "routine mission" in international airspace "the Chinese pilot took dangerous action in approaching the plane very, very closely." He added, "There have been a series of these actions directed not just at us but at other countries in recent months." 

On Wednesday, Beijing blamed U.S. "provocation" for the incident, according to Agence France-Presse.

"The United States' long-term and frequent sending of ships and planes to conduct close surveillance on China seriously harms China's national sovereignty and security," AFP quotes foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning as saying.

The Pentagon released a video of the interaction on Tuesday. The video, taken from the cockpit of the U.S. reconnaissance plane, shows the Chinese jet appearing to approach just in front of the plane before veering off, and then the video shakes as the U.S. plane hits turbulence. 

Chinese fighter jet harasses U.S. Air Force spy plane over South China Sea on May 26, 2023. screen grab from video captured from cockpit of spy plane, U.S. military video

The Chinese pilot's menacing behavior occurred as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin departed Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for his seventh trip to the Indo-Pacific region. Late Monday, the Pentagon said China had rejected an invitation for a meeting between Austin and Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu on the sidelines of an annual defense summit they're both attending in Singapore. 

Blinken called it "regrettable" that Austin was not able to meet with Li said it underscored "why it is so important that we have regular, open lines of communication, including – by the way – between our defense ministers."

The unsafe maneuver is part of a broader pattern, according to the Pentagon. A spokesperson for U.S. Indo-Pacific command said the U.S. has seen "an alarming increase in the number of risky aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea" by Chinese military aircraft and vessels. 

For instance, in December, a Chinese jet flew within 20 feet of the nose of a U.S. RC-135 and forced the RC-135 to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision, the command said in a statement.

Olivia Gazis contributed to this report.

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