The Chinese military has been putting U.S. military aircraft in danger with increasing reckless intercepts, the U.S. Navy admiral in charge of the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet said this week.
During a press briefing in Singapore on Tuesday, Vice Adml. Karl Thomas said he has observed an increase in “unsafe” Chinese aerial intercepts against U.S. and U.S.-allied aircraft over international airspace in the South China Sea, CNBC reported.
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“This reported increase in the air is obviously concerning,” said Thomas, who commands the 7th Fleet.
Thomas warned that even a slight miscalculation in these incidents could be catastrophic.
“It’s not a very forgiving environment if something goes wrong when you’re flying in the air,” he said.
It was not clear over what time Thomas saw the increase in China’s dangerous aerial intercepts or how many U.S. aircraft had been documented in that time.
The admiral’s warning comes after a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was endangered by a Chinese J-16 fighter jet in May. Australia’s Department of Defense lodged a complaint with China over the dangerous intercept in June.
The Australian military said its aircraft “was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft during a routine maritime surveillance activity in international airspace in the South China Sea region” and “the intercept resulted in a dangerous manoeuvre which posed a safety threat to the P-8 aircraft and its crew.”
In June, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) accused a U.S. Navy P-8 of endangering the peace by flying over the international waters of the Taiwan Strait. The PLA said its air and ground forces tracked the U.S. aircraft’s flight and remained on alert throughout its duration.
The PLA accused the U.S. of hyping up the Taiwan Strait flight in June, though the U.S. Navy, U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. 7th Fleet did not even mention the event.
A PLA Navy warship endangered a U.S. P-8 crew by shining a high-powered laser at them in March of 2020.
Thomas said unsafe Chinese aerial intercepts are still rare, for now.
“We’re not seeing it happen very frequently,” he said. “It’s not like every day, something’s going on. It’s an infrequent action. And then you start asking yourself — is it because it’s an unprofessional pilot? Or is it something that’s more broad than that?”
Thomas is in Singapore as part of the 2022 Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise (SEACAT 2022). The exercise is meant to reinforce interoperability between the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.
Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, Fiji, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Peru, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, United Kingdom and Vietnam are participating in SEACAT 2022.
During his remarks on Tuesday, Thomas said the U.S. and its allies and partners must continue to challenge China’s claims over the South China Sea.
“If you don’t challenge it, the problem is that it’ll become the norm,” he said. “… People just accept it, and then all of a sudden, people can make claims like the entire South China Sea is their territorial sea.”