South China Sea: Is China upping the stakes?

Story highlights

  • China and U.S. have no agreement on protocols for intercepts
  • This could lead to repeat of lethal 2001 incident when Chinese pilot died

Lt Col Rick Francona is a CNN military analyst and retired US Air Force intelligence officer with over 4000 flight hours in a variety of reconnaissance aircraft. The views expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)Two Chinese J-11 fighter aircraft carried out an "unsafe" intercept of a United States EP-3E "Aires II" reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

During the incident, which took place Tuesday, the fighters reportedly came within 50 feet (15 meters) of the Navy plane.
    Flying two supersonic fighter jets within 50 feet of a four-engine turboprop aircraft is dangerous, especially when the pilots cannot communicate effectively with each other, nor are the intentions of the intercepting aircraft clear.
    One mistake, either in judgment or airmanship, could result in a lethal incident.
    This is not theory -- it has happened in this same airspace with almost the identical participants. In April 2001, a Navy EP-3E was intercepted by a Chinese J-8 fighter.
    The Chinese pilot misjudged the distance between his fighter and the Navy aircraft. He attempted to do a zoom climb from under the aircraft and pull up immediately in front of the cockpit. He clipped the aircraft, lost control and crashed, resulting in his death.
    The EP-3E was severely damaged and was saved only by the skill of the flight crew.
    Unfortunately, the crippled plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese air base - thereby compromising the technical capabilities of the aircraft's electronic intelligence gathering capabilities.
    Why it's so tense in the South China Sea
    Why it's so tense in the South China Sea

      JUST WATCHED

      Why it's so tense in the South China Sea

    MUST WATCH

    Why it's so tense in the South China Sea 00:10

    Intercepts routine?

    Every time the Chinese intercept either the United States Air Force (USAF) or Navy reconnaissance aircraft that routinely operate in international airspace off the Chinese coast, the 2001 incident is at the forefront of everyone's mind.
    Unless the Chinese exercise control of these situations, we could have another collision, needless deaths and yes, an international incident that lead to even greater consequences.
    There is nothing untoward about intercepting aircraft operating close to a country's coast or borders.
    The United States routinely intercepts unidentified aircraft approaching our coasts or borders.
    Armed fighters will approach the aircraft and identify it to officers at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). Once the aircraft is deemed to not be a threat, or in the case of a foreign reconnaissance flight (the Russians conduct flights routinely) when it turns away, the fighters return to base.
    Although there is an agreement in force with the Chinese to prevent military incidents, it only calls for annual meetings to discuss the issue.
    There are no specific protocols on how the military forces are to conduct themselves when in close proximity to each other.
    Contrast this with the agreements between the United States and Russia which spell out very specifically minimum separation distances. That protocol calls for a minimum vertical distance of 1,000 feet and a horizontal distance of 1,500 feet.
    Fortunately, these incidents with the Chinese are not that common.
    Usually the Chinese broadcast verbal warnings on international distress frequencies demanding that the U.S. aircraft change course and depart the area, often claiming that the aircraft are violating Chinese airspace.

    Sensitive area

    The area in which this incident occurred is particularly sensitive for the Chinese.
    Not only are they enlarging uninhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea and building airstrips, they have deployed military aircraft and air defense missile systems as well. The sovereignty of these islands is contested by other countries in the region.
    The Chinese may be watching the increased tensions between the United States and Russia.
    On several occasions over the last few months, the Russians have harassed U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Japan in what is almost certainly an orchestrated attempt to provoke an American reaction.
    If the United States alters its behavior based on the Russian recent aggressive intercepts, it may embolden the Chinese to act in a similar confrontational matter, hoping to keep American reconnaissance flights from operating close to their coast.
    It won't work.
    The United States will continue to conduct lawful aerial reconnaissance missions in international airspace off China.
    The Chinese have already provoked one incident -- with lethal consequences. One misunderstanding, one misjudgment, one mistake - that's all it takes to move us to the brink of an international crisis.
    These incidents are likely to continue until specific protocols are worked out between the two countries. Thus far, the Chinese have shown no interest in lessening the tension -- they believe this is Chinese airspace.