Xi Jinping's Reckless BehaviourBeijing is testing U.S. resolve to maintain its regional presence.
The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal
A Chinese J-11 fighter jet is seen flying near a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon about 215 km (135 miles) east of China's Hainan Island on August 19.
'Very, very close. Very dangerous."
That's how Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby describes last week's encounter in which a Chinese fighter jet maneuvered, much like Tom Cruise's character in "Top Gun," within 20 feet of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea.
The Pentagon also revealed that China has flown at least three other provocative missions against U.S. aircraft since March.
Such persistent Chinese military recklessness helps explain why China's neighbors increasingly fear for regional security.
China naturally is pushing its own version of last week's events.
A military spokesman says that U.S. accusations are "totally unfounded" because "the Chinese pilot's maneuvers were professional, and maintained a safe distance from the U.S. aircraft."
The real security risk, says People's Liberation Army Colonel Yang Yujun, comes from U.S. surveillance flights, which would be "the root cause behind any accidents."
Yet such claims don't hold up against China's record of courting danger up and down the Western Pacific. Chinese air and sea incursions into Japanese territory caused Japan's air force to scramble fighter jets a record 415 times in the year that ended in March, up 36% from the year before.
In May and June, Chinese fighters buzzed within 100 feet of Japanese reconnaissance planes near the Japanese Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea—the closest Chinese flyby ever, according to Tokyo.
All of which follows on the January 2013 incident in which Chinese ships locked fire-control radar onto a Japanese destroyer and helicopter, a step just short of opening fire.
In the South China Sea, China's aggressive behavior more often targets the U.S., as when a Chinese warship cut within 100 meters of the U.S. destroyer Cowpens last December.
In 2009 five Chinese vessels forced the unarmed maritime surveillance ship USNS Impeccable to withdraw from waters off China's Hainan Island.
The worst case was in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane, forcing it to land on Hainan, where its 24 crew members were held for 10 days.
The Chinese pilot died.
These South China Sea incidents—and last week's close call—all happened in international waters or airspace, far outside the area of Chinese sovereignty that extends 12 miles from the coast.
China's international legal obligations require it to honor other countries' freedom of movement outside that 12-mile zone, but Beijing has tried to ban foreign militaries from conducting surveillance within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone as well.
Beijing last year declared an air-defense identification zone over Japan's Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and will likely do the same soon for the South China Sea.
Its claims to "historical waters" are particularly troubling because they are not dependent on land claims.
Since this has no basis in international law, it's impossible to predict how Beijing might restrict navigation.
While Beijing is ratcheting up the tension, the Pentagon leaked speculation that last week's intercept was only the work of a "rogue pilot" or maybe a "rogue squadron commander".
One starry-eyed official told the Journal that "something's out of whack" with Chinese military behavior in the South China Sea.
If that's the case, Xi Jinping —who exerts significant control over the military and has purged several senior generals tied to corruption—now has the opportunity to send a message by disciplining the commander responsible.
But we're not counting on it.
More likely, Chinese provocations will continue until Washington pushes back.
One possible response would be to stop extending coveted invitations to U.S.-led military exchanges such as the Rim of the Pacific Exercise in the waters off Hawaii, which China joined this summer for the first time. Washington has already offered China a spot in Rimpac 2016, but that can be rescinded.
While joint training can be valuable for teaching professionalism and building reliable lines of communication, the upside is limited if Xi Jinping remains dedicated to confrontation and intimidation.
At a minimum, continued surveillance flights through the Western Pacific are necessary to convey that the U.S. won't back down to Chinese bullying.
U.S. friends in Japan, the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam and beyond will be watching for such public signals of resolve.
Privately, meanwhile, U.S. officials could warn China that if it keeps threatening routine reconnaissance operations in international airspace, U.S. forces will have little choice but to deploy F-15s or F-22s as defensive escorts.