WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Friday accused a Chinese fighter jet of conducting a "dangerous intercept" of a U.S. Navy surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft off the coast of China in international airspace.
The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Washington protested to the Chinese military through diplomatic channels, calling the fighter pilot's actions "unsafe and unprofessional."
At a news briefing at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where President Barack Obama is vacationing, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, called the intercept "a deeply concerning provocation" and suggested it could set back efforts to improve relations.
"What we've encouraged is constructive military-to-military ties with China, and this kind of action clearly violates the spirit of that engagement," Rhodes told reporters.
Kirby said the Aug. 19 maneuvering by the Chinese jet posed a risk to the safety of the U.S. air crew, was "inconsistent with customary international law," and complicates efforts to improve military-to-military relations, which are often strained.
Kirby said the Chinese jet made several close passes by the Navy P-8 Poseidon plane, coming within 30 feet of it at one point. He said the Chinese jet did a "barrel roll" maneuver over the top of the Poseidon at one point and also passed across the nose of the Navy plane, exposing the belly of the fighter in a way apparently designed to show that it was armed.
Kirby said it happened about 135 miles east of China's Hainan Island.
The risky incident is the latest in a series of close encounters between two countries that are trying to assert their military might in the South China Sea, CBS News State Department correspondent Margaret Brennan said.
Similar fly-bys happened in March, April and May - all conducted by the same unit of the Chinese ir force based on Hainan Island, Brennan reported. But Kirby said this week's incident was the most aggressive.
In 2001 a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft off Hainan Island, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the Navy plane to make an emergency landing on the island. Washington severed military relations with China after that episode.
"The intercept was aggressive and demonstrated a lack of due regard for the safety and well-being of the U.S. and Chinese aircrews and aircraft," the Pentagon said in a statement."This incident is the most recent in a rising trend of nonstandard, unprofessional and unsafe intercepts of US aircraft that we have observed since the end of 2013."
The Navy's P-8 Poseidon aircraft are designed for long-range missions including intelligence collection and reconnaissance.