Two Chinese fighter jets have buzzed a U.S. spy plane that sniffs out nuclear radiation while flying over the East China Sea, underlining Beijing’s discomfort with American surveillance in its neighborhood.
The incident, reported Friday, also comes amid disagreement between the two countries on how to confront the nuclear and missile programs of North Korea, which depends on China as its main economic lifeline.
The American plane, a WC-135 Constant Phoenix, collects samples from the air to detect nuclear explosions. The U.S. Air Force said it was on a routine mission in international airspace. An American official told CNN, however, that the plane has been regularly deployed in Northeast Asia to gather evidence of possible further nuclear tests by North Korea.
The Chinese military has become increasingly unhappy with American surveillance in the East China Sea and in Southeast Asia in the South China Sea, where Beijing claims full sovereignty in an ongoing dispute with U.S. allies in the region such as the Philippines.
Intercepts are not uncommon in both areas. But the latest incident appeared an unusually tight encounter.
Two Chinese SU-30 fighters flew up close to an American WC-135 on Wednesday, the U.S. Air Force said in a statement, saying the American aircrew had described the intercept as “unprofessional,” based on the Chinese pilot’s maneuvers and the speeds and proximity involved.
“The issue is being addressed with China through appropriate diplomatic and military channels,” said Air Force spokeswoman Lt Col Lori Hodge, adding a U.S. military investigation into the intercept was underway.