DOD officials believe the unsafe interceptions of U.S. and allied aircraft in international airspace is “a centralized and concerted campaign” by Chinese officials to “coerce a change in lawful U.S. operational activity,” said Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs today.
Ratner and Navy Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, spoke at the Pentagon about the dangers these Chinese intercepts pose for peace in the region.
The Chinese intercepts are not limited to the skies in international airspace. Ratner said this is but part of a broader pattern of China’s People’s Liberation Army behavior “throughout the region, throughout domains and throughout geographies.”
Chinese vessels are harassing U.S. and allied warships in the waters of the East China Sea in the South China Sea. “We’re seeing it on land against our Indian partners,” he said. “This is part of a much broader picture.”
Ratner previewed some information from the soon-to-be-released Chinese Military Power Report saying that Chinese fighter jets are increasingly engaging in coercive and risky operational behavior.
“Since the fall of 2021, we have seen more than 180 such incidents: More in the past two years than in the decade before that,” Ratner said. “That’s nearly 200 cases where PLA operators have performed reckless maneuvers, or discharged chaff, or shot off flares, or approached too rapidly or too close to U.S. aircraft.”
These maneuvers are part of an effort to interfere with the ability of American forces to operate safely “in places where we and every country in the world have every right to be under international law,” he said. “And when you take into account cases of coercive and risky PLA intercepts against other states, the number increases to nearly 300 cases against U.S., allied and partner aircraft over the last two years.”
DOD released footage of some of these intercepts. These include a PLA fighter jet crossing in front of a lawfully operating U.S. aircraft at just 100 yards. “In May of this year, … Indo-Pacom released a video of a PLA aircraft speeding alongside a U.S. aircraft before cutting in front of it,” Ratner said. “You can even see the physical effects of the resulting turbulence on the aircraft in the crew.”
As this is happening, Chinese military officials refuse repeated U.S. requests to open lines of communication between the two countries. “These images and videos speak for themselves,” Ratner said. “U.S. planes are operating safely, responsibly and in accordance with international law. Indeed, the skill and professionalism of American service members should not be the only thing standing between PLA fighter pilots and a dangerous, even fatal, accident.”
Aquilino said these accidents caused by this risky behavior could lead to miscalculation. “Let me be clear, intercepts happen every day around the world, and the vast majority are conducted safely and without incident,” the admiral said. “There is no reason for the intercepts with the PRC in the Indo-Pacific region to be any different.”
Aquilino has asked to speak with Chinese counterparts for two-and-a-half years. “I have yet to have one of those requests accepted,” he said. “I look forward to speaking to my counterparts. I think developing that relationship would be critical to maintaining the peace and stability in the region.”
The Chinese behavior is concerning, he said. “What we’ve seen since 2021, is a set of actions that have brought airplanes much closer together than are comfortable for those in the cockpit,” Aquilino said. “In other words, flying off my wing at 15 feet for 45 minutes, has too much of a chance to lead to an accident. We’ve seen an increase in those close intercepts and activities in very close proximity to our airplanes since the fall 2021.”
There is no need for this behavior. “For decades, the United States has operated in the region safely, responsibly and in accordance with international law and we will continue to do so,” Ratner said. “Our allies and partners welcome our military presence because it advances our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“This vision is characterized by respect for sovereignty, adherence to international law, belief in transparency and openness, freedom of commerce and navigation, equal rights for all states and the resolution of disputes through peaceful means, not through coercion or conquest.”