The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said unsafe Chinese intercepts of U.S. and allied aircraft have become more common during a press briefing in Singapore on Tuesday.
Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, who leads the strategically important fleet in the Indo-Pacific, said during the briefing that, while overall interactions remain “professional,” there has been an uptick in unsafe intercepts by Chinese aircraft in recent months.
While flying up to an aircraft and taking photos is considered a normal interaction in the air — and done by the U.S. military — Chinese aircraft have flown dangerously close to U.S. and allied aircraft. These interactions, according to Thomas, are way out of the norms for conduct between aircraft.
“There’s things that are understood and the normal rules-based international order of how you professionally operate,” Thomas said. “And then there’s things that are provocative, and it’s the provocative nature of the intercepts that’s got our attention and we’re trying to understand it.”
Multiple instances of unsafe intercepts by Chinese aircraft have been reported in recent months. In July, news broke that a Chinese fighter jet unsafely intercepted a U.S. Special Operations C-130 cargo aircraft. The Defense Department did not comment on the exact actions taken by the Chinese jet.
U.S. allies have also been unsafely intercepted by Chinese aircraft. Since December 2021, reports indicate there have been more than two dozen unsafe interactions between Canadian and Chinese aircraft over international waters. Australia also reported a “dangerous manoeuvre” on May 26, in which a Chinese aircraft released chaff while flying directly in front of an Australian P-8. The chaff, meant to confuse an aircraft’s radar system, entered the P-8′s engine.
“This reported increase in the air is obviously concerning because it’s not a very forgiving environment if something goes wrong when you’re flying in the air,” Thomas said.
The increased frequency of these intercepts comes as tensions have risen over the status of Taiwan — and as China works to bolster its claim to almost the entirety of the South China Sea. Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, U.S.-China tensions have worsened with China launching an estimated 11 missiles around the waters of Taiwan.
China has also continued to fly sorties in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in an effort to pressure the smaller country’s air force, which must scramble jets in response to each incursion. In 2021, Chinese warplanes crossed over Taiwan’s ADIZ 969 times, more than double the number of incursions in 2020.
The South China Sea has also played been a flashpoint between the U.S. and China — and has been one of the reasons for such a response from the Chinese — Thomas said. Because of its claims in the sea, China has increased the size of islands or created new islands altogether, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ global conflict tracker. China has also constructed ports, airstrips and military installations, while further militarizing islands by deploying radar systems and cruise missiles to them.
With some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes located in the sea, the U.S. and others have rejected these territorial claims by China. The U.S. has asserted the right to freedom of navigation, citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As China militarizes the sea or unsafely intercepts warplanes, the U.S. must not be deterred, Thomas said.
“If you don’t challenge it, the problem is that it’ll become the norm,” Thomas said. “And if you don’t challenge it, and if people just accept it, then all sudden people can make claims like that the entire South China Sea is their territorial sea...It’s so important we contest these types of things.”
Zamone “Z” Perez is an editorial fellow at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa, where he helped produce podcasts. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched humanitarian intervention and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.