U.S. surveillance flights around China will continue in spite of Chinese objections, the Pentagon says, as military officials from the two countries try to work out a way to avoid incidents such as the dangerous near-miss last week between a Navy patrol plane and a Chinese fighter jet.
"We're going to continue to fly in international airspace the way we've been, just like we're going to continue to sail our ships in international waters the way we've been," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
"The United States is a Pacific power. We have responsibilities, five of seven treaty alliances in the Pacific region, we're going to meet those security commitments. We want to do this in an open and transparent way."
China blames the Aug. 19 incident on the U.S. aircraft flying too close to its coastline, in airspace it claims as its own — a claim the U.S. does not recognize. A Navy P-8 patrol craft was flying over the South China Sea, 135 miles east of China's Hainan Island, when an armed Chinese J-11 fighter jet made several close passes and did a barrel roll over the U.S. aircraft.
The Chinese pilot's actions — which Kirby described Friday as "very dangerous ... pretty aggressive and very unprofessional" —nearly sparked a replay of an April 2001 crisis when a collision with a Chinese fighter jet forced a Navy EP-3 to land on Hainan. The Chinese held the 24 U.S. crew members for 11 days, releasing them only after a U.S. statement of regret. The aircraft was later returned in pieces, after the Chinese had thoroughly studied its classified equipment.
The meetings this week at the Pentagon had previously been scheduled as part of increased contacts between Chinese and U.S. officials to keep tensions down and avoid repeats of the April 2001 crisis.
It's not clear whether they will make much headway, however. Chinese officials continue to insist the U.S. end surveillance flights close to its coastline.
Zhang Junshe, deputy head of the People's Liberation Army Naval Research Institute, told China Daily on Wednesday that Chinese officials are waiting for an explanation from Washington about how frequent "in-close" reconnaissance fits into the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" strategy, although U.S. officials insist the strategy is not aimed against China.