The Chinese Navy simulated an attack on a U.S. Navy task group in the South China Sea on December 21, the same day that a Chinese J-11 fighter jet intercepted a U.S. Air Force RC-135 surveillance aircraft, in what the Pentagon termed an “unsafe maneuver.” While a video of the intercept was released yesterday, which you can read more about here, further details are now becoming available pointing to a large-scale Chinese exercise in the South China Sea, involving the aircraft carrier Shandong, as well as other undisclosed bomber and fighter aircraft.
“As part of that exercise, a strike group led by the Shandong simulated attacks on a U.S. Navy formation,” an official from an unnamed Asian country disclosed to the Financial Times. It was while this was happening that the armed People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-11BSH Flanker fighter jet intercepted the RC-135. That incident occurred within international airspace.
It’s now clear that there was significant air and naval activity in the South China Sea at the time, which also included refueling sorties above the Bashi Channel, the highly strategic straits which run from the southern end of Taiwan to the northern tip of the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
Intense Chinese military activity in the South China Sea is hardly unusual, although it’s interesting to note that, in this case, the exercise scenario apparently targeted U.S. Navy vessels specifically.
At the same, time, U.S. surveillance and maritime patrol aircraft are also regular visitors to the South China Sea, and the Bashi Channel in particular.
Indeed, it’s highly conceivable that the RC-135 that was intercepted was monitoring the same Chinese military drill as it unfolded in the air and in the waters of the South China Sea. In the past, the SCS Probing Initiative, hosted by the Peking University in Beijing, has claimed that “The U.S. military conducts three to five sorties to the South China Sea every day.”
On December 21, according to the SCS Probing Initiative, the U.S. military sent three P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, one RC-135V surveillance aircraft, and one E-3G airborne early warning and control aircraft from Clark Air Base and Kadena Air Base to operate over the South China Sea and south of the Taiwan Strait. The RC-135V in question could very well have been the one intercepted by the J-11.
Meanwhile, the PLAN’s most recently inducted aircraft carrier, Shandong, has also conducted previous exercises in the region, as have U.S. Navy carrier strike groups.
In fact, the intensity of U.S. carrier operations in the South China Sea has picked up in recent years. In July 2020, for example, two Nimitz class aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan took part in the first dual-carrier exercise held there in six years.
Notably, as of December 21, the PLAN also had another carrier task group conducting large-scale exercises, this time with Liaoning operating in the Philippine Sea. The ability of the PLAN to carry out simultaneous large-scale carrier operations in two different locations is a significant one, as carriers and out-of-area operations become more central to its concept of operations.
Overall, the events of December 21 reflect the patterns of activity that are increasingly commonplace for both China and the United States in the region.
Beijing claims the bulk of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, contributing to this being the region’s most hotly contested body of water. Such claims are bolstered by China’s construction of controversial man-made islands in the region. These outposts have become increasingly militarized, part of China’s strategy for enforcing its expansive territorial claims despite significant international opposition. The same strategy also involves paramilitary vessels that are used to impede other nations’ access to fishing areas and energy resources.
In addition, the Bashi Channel serves as an important passageway from the South China Sea in the broader Pacific to the east, especially for Chinese submarines. These include the ballistic missile submarines at the sprawling Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island, at the northern end of the South China Sea, which constitute an increasingly important part of Beijing’s strategic nuclear forces.
For the U.S. military, meanwhile, there is a clear requirement to monitor Chinese activities in the region, including exercises, but also gathering any kind of intelligence that could shed light on the capabilities of PLAN aircraft and ships, as well as tactics, techniques, and procedures. Of course, a close intercept by a J-11 on a U.S. strategic reconnaissance asset can also reveal critical intelligence details.
While the precise location of the RC-135 intercept, and of the simulated attacks on the U.S. Navy by the Shandong strike group, remain unclear, the issue of Taiwan also plays into the geopolitical backdrop of these and similar incidents.
The Chinese leadership has taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward Taiwan in recent years, while officials in the United States are now more openly expressing concerns that Beijing may seek to take control of the island sooner rather than later. The PLAN’s ability to frustrate any U.S. Navy operations that might be undertaken in support of Taiwan is clearly fundamental to success
As to the RC-135’s encounter with the J-11, a U.S. military spokesperson has confirmed to Reuters that the Chinese jet actually came within 10 feet of the surveillance plane’s wing, but 20 feet from its nose. It was the position of the Chinese jet off the nose of the RC-135 which reportedly caused the U.S. aircraft to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision.
The video that has been presented doesn’t appear to show the J-11 in extremely close proximity to the RC-135, or undertaking overtly hazardous maneuvers, something that former RC-135 pilot and contributor to The War Zone, Robert S Hopkins III, has observed:
Still, the Chinese Flanker is shown coming close to the RC-135 in a manner in which keeping visual separation may have been impeded for the pilot flying the fighter and we don't know what else happened that was not shown in the video. But by the DoD's account, some evasive maneuvering occurred, which we do not see.
Regardless, the Pentagon clearly considers that the action by the J-11 fits within a wider pattern of “dangerous behavior” by Chinese military aircraft, especially over the highly contested South China Sea.
Repeated incidents have been described variously as risky or unprofessional, although it’s also apparent that these encompass a range of different actions by the Chinese aircraft, some of which are clearly more dangerous than others.
In July, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that China had become more aggressive in its intercepts of U.S. and allied military aircraft. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has also raised his concerns about this issue in a recent meeting with Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe.
Some actions by Chinese aircraft in recent months have been more overtly threatening. A case in point is the incident in May this year, when an Australian P-8A was damaged by countermeasures launched by a Chinese J-16 Flanker fighter jet over the South China Sea, according to the Australian Department of Defense.
In an incident that you can read more about here, the J-16 is said to have cut across and in front of the Australian patrol plane before releasing chaff, which is normally used to blind and confuse radars, but which would cause serious damage if ingested into an engine.
In response to the P-8 incident, the Chinese Ministry of Defense stated that the “countermeasures taken by the Chinese military are professional, safe, reasonable, and legitimate.”
Beijing frames military activities by the United States and its allies as a threat to peace in the region, issuing sharp rebukes to U.S. Navy warships conducting so-called Freedom of Navigation Patrols, or FONOPs. Meanwhile, its claims over most of the South China Sea and Taiwan remain steadfast.
So far, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has not provided any more details about the December 21 incident, or the scope of the Chinese exercise, but the issue of the RC-135 intercept has been raised with the Chinese government. The Ministry of Defense in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in the United States are yet to comment.
With no obvious signs that the overall geopolitical situation in the region is set to change any time soon, it seems more likely than not that we will see more incidents involving the PLAN and the U.S. military — and its allies — in this strategic area.
Large-scale exercises like those undertaken by China in the South China Sea on December 21, and the RC-135 intercept that took place concurrently, also highlight the dangers of inadvertent conflict — if only through a misunderstanding — that are always present in these kinds of high-stakes encounters.
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