China, Russia and US test the boundaries of international airspace

A resurgent Russia and Chinese efforts to project power further afield draws US response and leads to rise in mid-air encounters

A recent spate of dangerous mid-air encounters between American military aircraft and Chinese and Russian planes over the Pacific Ocean are the result of increasingly assertive strategies by both US adversaries to project power far beyond their borders, according to the top US Air Force commander in the region.

Air Force General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the head of US Pacific Air Forces, said China’s naval and air forces in particular are “very much continuing to push” and becoming more active in international waters and airspace in Asia.

“They still talk about the century of humiliation in the last century. They still talk about this as the rise of China,” Carlisle said in an interview. “They still talk about this as their great nation. And they want to continue to demonstrate that.”

Carlisle said US and Chinese forces are frequently encountering each other in parts of the East China and South China seas where they rarely came into contact in the past. Since commissioning its first aircraft carrier two years ago, China’s navy has conducted more exercises further away from its shores and is closely patrolling areas in disputed waters where Chinese companies are drilling for oil.

Those movements have prompted the US military in turn to deploy its ships and reconnaissance aircraft to keep a close watch. China’s military usually responds by conducting intercepts of US aircraft as the two sides jockey for position, Carlisle said.

“All of that makes their tension go up a little bit,” he added.

US officials said one such encounter got out of hand in August, when a Chinese J-11 fighter jet flashed past a Navy Poseidon P-8 patrol aircraft, performing a barrel roll at close range and bringing its wingtip within meters of the US plane. That incident occurred in international airspace about 220km east of China’s Hainan Island.

At the time, Pentagon officials protested publicly and released photos of the near-miss, which they cited as evidence of rash and irresponsible behaviour on the part of the Chinese pilot. They said the same Chinese military unit had conducted three other risky intercepts of US aircraft earlier in the year.

Carlisle was more measured in his assessment, saying that there has always been “an ebb and flow” in the number of Chinese intercepts and that he didn’t think China’s military leadership was looking to provoke a conflict.

“I personally don’t think it needs to get too much hype,” said Carlisle, who will leave his post in the Pacific this month to take a new assignment as chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia. But he acknowledged that “the opportunity for something to go wrong” will likely increase as China’s military gathers strength and moves further afield.

To prevent such incidents, the Pentagon has tried to enhance communications channels and expand formal ties with the People’s Liberation Army in recent years. Although US officials said progress has been made, they added that they didn’t expect to solve the issue overnight.

“I am disappointed. Am I surprised? I’m not necessarily surprised,” Admiral Samuel Locklear, the chief of the US Pacific Command, said at a 25 September news briefing at the Pentagon, when asked about the close calls. He added that the “vast majority” of interactions between US and Chinese military aircraft and ships resulted in no problems. “It’s those outliers that concern us.”

While the Pentagon has long expected an increase in Chinese military activity in the Pacific, it has also had to confront a resurgent Russia, which is conducting more long-range reconnaissance and bomber missions in the region and even approaching territory.

On 17 September, US fighter jets intercepted a half-dozen Russian military planes – two fighter jets, two long-range bombers and two refuelling tankers – as they were flying in international airspace near the coast of Alaska. US officials said they have also seen an increase in Russian bombers flying near Guam, the US territory in the Pacific.

Carlisle attributed the Russian flights to a strategy by President Vladimir Putin “to reassert Russia into what he thinks its rightful place in the international order is, and part of that is continuing to push into the Pacific.”

He described the Russian manoeuvers “a little harder to figure out” in comparison to Chinese military actions, which he called “more rational.”

Russia has also become more active in airspace between its Pacific border and Japan, prompting a sharp rise in Japanese intercepts of Russian military aircraft over the past year.

In turn, Russia hasn’t hesitated to challenge US reconnaissance flights near its territory. In April, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet flew within 30 meters of a US Air Force RC-135U aircraft that was operating in international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk, prompting complaints from the Pentagon.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates stories from the Washington Post

Source: The Guardian, 7 October 2014

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