WASHINGTON — A Chinese fighter jet flew within 30 feet of a Navy surveillance and reconnaissance plane this week in international airspace just off the Chinese coast, the Pentagon said Friday.
The encounter, known as an intercept, was “very, very close, very dangerous,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
The Pentagon filed a diplomatic complaint with the People’s Liberation Army on Friday morning, Defense Department officials said. As of Friday afternoon, it had not received a reply.
The episode, which occurred Tuesday, began with the Chinese warplane flying closely underneath the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon. It then moved parallel to the naval plane, with the wingtips of the two aircraft separated by less than 30 feet.
As a final maneuver, the Chinese fighter executed a barrel roll, apparently to show off its weapons payload to the U.S. pilot. A barrel roll is just as it sounds — a fighter jet rolls over and then levels out. Kirby called it an aggressive move.
“We have registered our strong concerns to the Chinese about the unsafe and unprofessional intercept, which posed a risk to the safety and the well-being of the aircrew and was inconsistent with customary international law,” he said.
The intercept is bound to increase tensions between the Pentagon and the Chinese military, already heated because of Beijing’s aggressive actions against Japan and other U.S. allies concerning territory in the East and South China Seas.
This year, China refused to invite Japan to a naval parade it hosted, which the Defense Department then boycotted as well. One U.S. defense official lamented the whole episode as “so totally high school.”
This time, the encounter was more serious, particularly given that a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy spy plane in April 2001 in the skies above Hainan Island. The Chinese pilot was killed, and the U.S. plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan.
After the collision, the Chinese authorities detained the U.S. crew for more than a week and initially issued an angry statement saying that “the U.S. side has total responsibility for this event.”
Adm. Dennis C. Blair, then commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, issued his own angry statement, charging that the Chinese plane had been tailing the U.S. jet, a practice Beijing’s military had increasingly adopted. “It’s not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air,” Blair said at the time.
China has continued to show off its military prowess to the United States in the 13 years since the Hainan collision. In 2011, when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited China, the military there greeted him with an unexpected and, in the view of U.S. military officials, provocative test of a stealth fighter jet. The bold show of force surprised the Americans and also, it appeared, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.
This year, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited China, the military greeted him with a tour of the country’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, that the U.S. government had long sought. U.S. officials interpreted that visit as another indication of China’s resolve to project its naval power.
In part, military analysts say, China wants to assert power over nearby seas and its airspace because of tensions with its neighbors over disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.
Kirby said there was no “Machiavellian intent” in the three-day delay in reporting the confrontation this week. “I think we needed to process the information and kind of figure out what really happened,” he said. “And I also believe — and I think this was the right course, too — we wanted to make sure that we had taken the opportunity to register our deep concern.”
“It made no sense to go public with that until we had a chance to deliver that démarche, which we did,” he added.