US and Chinese warplanes risk a mid-air collision — and an international incident

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and you're listening to The World. You know how when you're flying you sometimes look out your window and see another plane in the distance? Well, that's just it. The other plane is usually at a safe distance away. Try coming within 20 feet of another jet. That's exactly what happened last week when a Chinese fighter jet came uncomfortably close to a US surveillance plane. It happened about 130 miles off the coast of Hainan Island in international airspace. David Shambough directs the Chinese Policy Program at George Washington University and he tells me that this happens more often than we think.

David Shambough: There have been several such close encounters with very risky behavior by the Chinese pilots over recent months and there have been several diplomatic demarches made by the US government to the Chinese government each time. This most recent case though is quite worrying and the details that we have of it so far reminds one of the accident back in 2001, the so-called EP-3 incident in which an American reconnaissance plane almost crashed into the sea. In fact, the Chinese fighter pilot that was hot-dogging around that plane did crash into the sea and he died. The American plane landed on China's Hainan Island. The crew was kept for about 10 days before being released. So, this is a repetitive pattern.

Werman: A repetitive pattern but why are you especially worried about this one? What makes this so concerning?

Shambough: Well, as you said in your introductory remarks, 20 feet is pretty close when you're up in the air at that height and the Chinese fighter buzzed the American reconnaissance plane several times, including flying right across its nose at a 90 degree angle, doing also what they call a barrel roll just above the American reconnaissance plane and it was just clearly provocative and, to put it mildly, highly unprofessional behavior.

Werman: When the Pentagon reacts so strongly, there's a sense that this kind of thing could have been avoided. Are these buzzbys ever intentional? Do you think this one was and why would an air force actually do that?

Shambough: Of course it was intentional. As I say, it's out in the international airspace. This American reconnaissance plane was outfitted with a lot of intelligence gathering equipment to monitor Chinese submarines and it has to be said that the Americans patrol up and done along the Chinese coast 365 days a year, albeit out in international airspace. But nonetheless, from the Chinese perspective, this is highly provocative behavior and they don't like it and their one way to deter it, they think, is to intercept these flights. It's a cat and mouse game, it goes on all the time. It's just not reported in the media until there's a close incident like this.

Werman: So if this especially close call at 20 feet is a concern to the Pentagon, how could it affect US-Chinese relations?

Shambough: Well, it could result in a mid-air crash, in which both planes would go down and lives would be lost and it would produce a major incident, a national security crisis, one can say, between US and China, just as it did back in 2001 during the Bush Administration. That was very tense for 10 days. It finally defused with a letter written by the American ambassador that was a de facto apology to the Chinese.

Werman: Why do you think the Chinese would make this provocation now?

Shambough: That's the big question everybody in the community is wondering about. Is this just a hotdog pilot acting on his own or is he under orders from his base or even higher up in the Chinese system? The Chinese government, of course, has denied that this ever happened or is happening. But we know it's happening and we have photographs to prove it.

Werman: That was George Washington University's David Shambough.