U.S. forces operating in international waterways or airspace are seeing an alarming increase in the number of risky aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by Chinese aircraft and vessels, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said he's worried over chances of miscalculation at a conference in Singapore last week.
U.S. military aircraft and ships operate throughout the world in international waters and airspace. These "freedom of navigation" operations ensure crucial transportation routes remain open to all nations.
Military aircraft interactions occur throughout the world on a regular basis, Defense Department officials said. The vast majority of these interactions are safe and professional. Many of these safe and professional interactions occur between U.S. and Chinese forces.
But there has been an increase in unsafe and unprofessional intercepts of U.S. and allied forces lawfully operating in international zones throughout the Indo-Pacific region, said U.S. Indo-Pacific Command officials.
The officials said there have been "scores of dangerous incidents in the air and at sea over the past 18 months alone." They include:
- In February 2022, a Chinese naval ship directed a laser at an Australian P-8A Poseidon aircraft operating in Australia's exclusive economic zone, endangering the health of Australian airmen.
- In June 2022, a Chinese J-16 fighter cut across the nose of another Australian P-8A Poseidon that was operating in international airspace over the South China Sea. The Chinese jet released a round of chaff, which was ingested into the Australian aircraft's engine.
- Recently, the Chinese coast guard employed water cannons, military-grade lasers and erratic conduct to try and intimidate the Philippines from lawful operations within that country's exclusive economic zone, Indo-Pacific officials said.
- In December 2022, a Chinese Navy J-11 pilot flew in front of — and within 20 feet of — the nose of a U.S. Air Force RC-135, which had to maneuver away to avoid a collision. The Air Force jet was lawfully conducting routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace.
- Just last month, a Chinese J-16 fighter pilot performed an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver during the intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft. "The PRC pilot flew directly in front of the nose of the RC-135, forcing the U.S. aircraft to fly through its wake turbulence," Indo-Pacific Command officials said.
- In June, the American destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and Canadian frigate HMCS Montreal conducted a routine transit from south to north through the Taiwan Strait when the Chinese destroyer Luyang III executed unsafe maneuvers in the vicinity of Chung-Hoon. The Chinese vessel overtook Chung-Hoon on its port side and crossed the Chung-Hoon's bow at 150 yards.
"These are not isolated incidents, but patterns of behavior that significantly increases the risk of accidents and constitute a grave threat to regional security," Indo-Pacific Command officials said.
U.S. officials use communication channels to discuss these dangerous encounters with the Chinese military. Still, the Chinese have limited contact between U.S. and Chinese military officials. "The Department of Defense is committed to opening lines of military-to-military communication with the PRC in order to responsibly manage the defense relationship between the two countries," DOD officials said.
In the meantime, the United States will continue to fly, sail and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international law allows. U.S. forces "will continue to fly in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law," DOD officials said. "We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law."