An alarming incident unfolded over the South China Sea as a Chinese J-11 pilot executed a perilous intercept of a US Air Force B-52, raising international tensions and highlighting growing concerns over airspace safety.

The recent incident has raised alarms throughout international diplomatic circles, as the US Air Force B-52 conducted lawful operations over the South China Sea. The manoeuvre, which occurred on 24 October 2023, involved the Chinese pilot flying dangerously close to the US aircraft, violating established international air safety protocols.

The encounter, which unfolded in international airspace, saw the Chinese J-11 pilot exhibit poor airmanship, approaching the B-52 with uncontrolled speed and closing within 10ft of the US aircraft. This proximity put both planes at risk of collision, raising questions about the pilot’s awareness of the potential consequences of such a manoeuvre.

The incident, which occurred under limited visibility, directly contravenes international air safety rules and norms. International conventions mandate that military aircraft operate with professionalism and prioritise the safety of all aircraft involved. The interception of the US B-52 represented a departure from these established norms.

The US Air Force recently bolstered its Indo-Pacific interoperability with a successful bilateral exercise in Indonesia featuring B-52H Stratofortress bombers. The deployment underlines the importance of the Indo-Pacific for US strategic interests in countering challenges like Chinese military expansion.

This encounter is not an isolated event but rather part of a pattern of behaviour outlined in the 2023 China Military Power Report (CMPR) released by the US Department of Defense. The report highlights numerous instances of “unsafe, unprofessional, and other behaviours” by Chinese military forces that jeopardise the ability of the US and other nations to conduct operations within international law.

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Just days before this intercept, the Department of Defense declassified a collection of images and videos depicting a series of coercive and risky actions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) against US aircraft lawfully operating in the East and South China Sea regions. These revelations have further intensified concerns regarding China’s approach to international airspace safety and security.

The rapidly rising economy of China and its influence over the South China Sea has created political fissures in the West, according to GlobalData’s China Defense Market 2023–2028 report.

In response to these provocative actions, the US Government has reaffirmed its commitment to operate within the bounds of international law. The US Indo-Pacific Command Joint Force remains resolute in its dedication to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and expects all countries to adhere to established international norms when operating in international airspace.

China has refuted US claims of a dangerous aircraft clash over the South China Sea, following an incident where a Chinese J-11 pilot allegedly conducted “unsafe manoeuvres” near a US Air Force RC-135 aircraft. 

As tensions continue to simmer in the South China Sea, the incident serves as a reminder of the challenges faced by nations seeking to safeguard their interests in a complex geopolitical landscape.