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US Criticizes Aggressive Chinese Military Air-Sea Maneuvers

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: June 7, 2023
This photo taken on October 17, 2019 shows a J-16 fighter jet performing in the sky during the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Aviation Open Day in China's northeastern province of Jilin. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Defense has condemned the Chinese military for engaging in aggressive maneuvers following a series a recent incidents in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, further exacerbating concerns over potential miscalculations and the risk of armed conflict.

On May 26, the Pentagon reported an incident in which a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) J-16 fighter flew directly in front of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft; the Chinese pilot had taken his plane within 400 meters of the American reconnaissance craft, which was operating in international airspace over the South China Sea. A U.S. senior defense official highlighted that this incident was part of a larger pattern of behavior displayed by Chinese pilots in the region.

“We don’t believe it’s done by pilots operating 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 Pentagon official told reporters on May 30.

On June 3, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command issued a statement regarding a PLA warship (PRC LY 132) that performed unsafe maneuvers within 150 yards of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Chung-Hoon during a “freedom of navigation” transit in the Taiwan Strait.

White House spokesman John Kirby on June 5 (Monday) criticized the “unsafe and unprofessional intercepts” by PLA planes and ships, stating, “It won’t be long before somebody gets hurt. That’s the concern.”

He added that such actions can “lead to misunderstandings; they can lead to miscalculations.”

The PLA, which is the military wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in a statement on June 3 accused the U.S. and Canada of “deliberately creating incidents” and undermining “peace and stability” in the region, as well as “sending the wrong signal to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.”

People’s Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin defended the actions taken by the PLA, claiming they were lawful and professional, and repeated the PLA’s accusations of the U.S. being the party that initiated provocations.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, warned on June 5 that China’s actions increase the chances of miscalculations that could inadvertently lead to conflict.

“China is only increasing the chances for miscalculation – namely ships or aircraft accidentally colliding – that could then spiral into armed conflict,” he said.

Chinese military commentator Song Zhongping told Reuters that the Chinese navy’s “point-blank” intercept was a demonstration of its capabilities and determination. He added that the PRC’s countermeasures would intensify in response to increased “provocation” from the United States.

In comments made to Vision Times, analysts with political risk consultancy SinoInsider noted that the aggressive PLA military maneuvers come at a time of greater U.S. efforts to cool tensions and “engage” with Communist China.

“Their behavior suggests that the CCP is taking advantage of the Biden administration’s eagerness to have ‘engagement’ with China and ‘thaw’ the bilateral relationship as a means of demonstrating that Beijing will not be easily bullied.”

The New York-based consultancy, which specializes in Chinese elite politics, added that the maneuvers also help the Xi Jinping leadership burnish its political credentials in the face of “problematic nationalistic elements in the regime” who would otherwise criticize the central authorities for a “weak” response to the West’s hardening geopolitical stance on the PRC.

“The CCP’s authoritarian nature demands that it always strive to maintain a ‘tough’ image and preserve ‘face’ where possible. In the quest to save ‘face,’ the CCP has been known to take dangerous and unnecessary military actions,” SinoInsider said.