The pilot of the Chinese Shenyang J-16, an advanced fourth-generation fighter jet, flew within 400 feet and "directly in front of the nose" of the U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance plane. A video of the encounter filmed from the cockpit of the RC-135 shows the Chinese fighter jet banking from right to left across the path of the recon plane, causing it to visibly shake as a result. (Related: US warns China about plans to increase military drills in South China Sea region.)
"The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international law allows, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force will continue to fly in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law," said the Indo-Pacific Command's public affairs unit in a statement. "We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law."
The incident is considered to be one of the most aggressive confrontations between the militaries of the two superpowers this year and comes amid growing concerns from the Pentagon over what it has described as "an alarming increase in the number of risky aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by [People's Liberation Army] aircraft and vessels."
The U.S. plans to issue a diplomatic protest, known as a "demarche," over the incident. One senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity with the Wall Street Journal even noted that incidents like these are not done by Chinese pilots independently.
"We believe it's part of a wider pattern we see in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere," the official said.
The last similar incident to occur happened in December, when the U.S. military said a Chinese naval jet fighter "performed an unsafe maneuver" near another U.S. RC-135. The Chinese jet came within 10 feet of the American aircraft, forcing the pilots to take evasive measures to avoid a collision.
A spokesperson for China's embassy in Washington, D.C., Liu Pengyu, denounced America's frequent "close-in reconnaissance on China," alluding to the fact that the communist nation claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory – a claim that overlaps with the claims of several other nations in the region.
Liu further claimed that America's "provocative and dangerous moves" in the region pose a serious danger to Chinese national security and "are the root cause of maritime security issues."
"China urges the U.S. to stop such dangerous provocations, and stop deflecting blame on China," he said.
Liu added that China would "continue to take necessary measures to resolutely defend its sovereignty and security, and work with regional countries to firmly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea."
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said that America sending ships and planes to conduct surveillance on Chinese assets in the South China Sea "harms China's national sovereignty and security."
Despite claims that China is willing to work with the U.S. on peace and security issues in the South China Sea, the incident with the J-16 and the RC-135 occurred just one day after China declined a request by the U.S. for a meeting of the two sides' top defense chiefs during a security conference in Singapore on the first week of June.
U.S. officials wanted to meet with their Chinese counterparts to prevent conflict when both American and Chinese military assets are operating in international waters. The Pentagon said military-to-military communication is essential to prevent accidents or misunderstandings from spiraling into military conflict.
Non-senior-level military communications between China and the U.S. remain open.
Learn more about China's latest actions in CommunistChina.news.
Watch the short declassified video released by the Pentagon of the Chinese jet's dangerous and aggressive flyby of the U.S. reconnaissance plane.