US reconnaissance aircraft threatened by Chinese fighter jet as national tensions escalate

An American reconnaissance flight carrying a number of corporate media journalists was shadowed by a Chinese fighter jet Friday leading to a threatening exchange as tensions with the communist nation continue to escalate.

(Video: CNN)

Correspondents for CNN, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal were among those on board a US Navy aircraft surveilling near the occupied Paracel Islands in the South China Sea Friday. The P-8 patrol plane had departed a US airbase on the Japanese island of Okinawa when, roughly 30 miles outside Chinese airspace in the South China Sea, a Chinese J-11 fighter carrying air-to-air missiles came up alongside them.

“American aircraft, this is the PLA Air Force,” a voice announced crackling over the radio. “You are approaching Chinese airspace. Keep a safe distance or you will be intercepted.”

Responding to the communication, US Navy Lt. Nikki Slaughter could be heard saying, “PLA fighter aircraft, this is US Navy P-8A … I hold you off my left wing and I intend to continue to proceed to the west. I request that you do the same, over.”

The PLA jet reportedly came within 500 feet of the reconnaissance flight and remained there for over an hour until the American plane changed its trajectory to the south. However, that wasn’t the only encounter for the mission as, after the plane had dropped its altitude to 1000 feet above sea level nearer to the Philippines, a Chinese Navy guided-missile destroyer warship was spotted.

“US aircraft. US aircraft,” the vessel hailed. “This is Chinese naval warship 173. You are approaching to me at low altitude. State your intention, over.”

“US aircraft. US aircraft,” it began again after the American pilot reported the flight would maintain a safe distance. “This is Chinese naval warship 173. You are clearly endangering my safety. You are clearly endangering my safety.”

On board, US Navy Cmdr. Marc Hines described the incident to CNN as “another Friday afternoon in the South China Sea.”

He wasn’t being flippant though as he explained, “Whenever there’s no response, it leaves questions. Do they understand what we’re saying? Do they understand our intentions? Do they understand we don’t mean any harm?”

Since July 2020, under then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United States has maintained a declared mission to “maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes.”

That mission has become increasingly trying as China has threatened escalated military tensions with Taiwan and much of the region, going so far as to conduct a joint military exercise flying nuclear-capable bombers over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Philippine Sea while President Joe Biden was visiting Japan.

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), more than 90 outposts have been built on reefs and manmade islands throughout the South China Sea operated by Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and China. The United States does not recognize China’s claim to what its airspace actually encompasses.

The tense encounter also followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement earlier this week to suspend his country’s participation in the New START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear nonproliferation agreement between the United States and Russia, after Biden visited Ukraine as a show of support in marking the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion there.

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