Watch: A Chinese fighter jet flew within 20 feet of US recon plane this month

The incident happened over the South China Sea earlier this month.
Ameya Paleja
The Chinese J-11 jet captured from inside the RC-135 plane
The Chinese J-11 jet captured from inside the RC-135 plane

Bloomberg/ YouTube 

A Chinese fighter jet came dangerously close to an American aircraft belonging to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, forcing the U.S. pilot to evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision, The New York Times reported. The U.S. Air Force has declassified the video of the incident and published it.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is part of the U.S. Air Force tasked with protecting the national interests of roughly three dozen countries in the South China Sea region, where China has begun flexing its muscles in the past few years.

The Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, has said in the past that the islands in the region have historically been under Chinese control, and it is the country's responsibility to safeguard the region's territorial sovereignty and maritime interests. China's assertions have become more assertive in recent years as it has sent ships and aircraft into the region.

What happened in the South China Sea?

In the recent episode documented above, a U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance plane was performing routine exercises in international airspace when a Chinese J-11 fighter aircraft came within 20 feet ( six m) of the nose of the aircraft.

As seen in the video above, the fighter jet flew very close to the RC-135 aircraft and then proceeded to occupy the space ahead of the U.S. aircraft. In this position, it was unlikely that the Chinese pilot could safely see the RC-135, Defense News reported.

The U.S. Air Force plane then continued to maintain its speed and course as the Chinese fighter jet drifted within 20 feet from the aircraft's nose, following which the U.S. pilot had to take measures to avoid a collision.

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The incident on December 21 was made public only recently since it took time to declassify imagery and notify various departments involved in these operations, the NYT said in its report.

Not the first instance

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Command told NYT that it had seen an alarming rise in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations by aircraft and vessels of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

U.S. allies Australia and Canada have also experienced unsafe intercepts over Pacific waters in the past year. In June, Chinese jets buzzed a Canadian plane monitoring North Korea, while in May, a Chinese fighter plane fired flares, cut in front of an Australian plane, and ejected chaff, the material used to throw missiles off track.

Such incidents are not entirely harmless, though. In 2001, a similar incident led to a collision between a fighter jet and a U.S. Navy surveillance plane, which proved fatal for the fighter pilot. The Navy plane was forced to make an emergency landing and its 24-member crew was captured for a week before being let off after an apology from the U.S. ambassador in China.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Command said that it expected countries in the region to use the international airspace safely and following international law.