Two recent close encounters between US spy planes and Chinese jets spell trouble for relations between Washington and Beijing. The first, between a US EP-3 spy plane and two Chinese jets over the South China Sea (SCS) near China’s Hainan Island, was strikingly similar to the 2001 incident in the same area in which a Chinese jet and an EP-3 collided, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot, the forced landing and detention of the US crew, and a tense diplomatic row. The second involved a US RC-135 plane that was closely tracked by a Chinese jet over the East China Sea (ECS).
Such incidents, which also bring US and Chinese ships in close proximity, are happening with greater frequency these days. There are two reasons for this. China is backing its claims of “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands—the Spratlys (Nansha) and Paracels (Xisha) in the SCS, Diaoyudao (Senkaku) in the ECS—with military construction and personnel. And US naval and air maneuvers are deliberately challenging Chinese activity. Leaders of both countries are now issuing thinly veiled warnings, demanding acceptance of their respective positions, and disputing details of the encounters.