26 March 2015

When Eagle Meets Dragon: Managing Risk in Maritime East Asia

Peter Dutton and Andrew Erickson, “When Eagle Meets Dragon: Managing Risk in Maritime East Asia,” RealClearDefense, 25 March 2015.

On 19 August 2014 a U.S. Navy (USN) P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft was flying in international airspace above the Chinese exclusive economic zone (EEZ) ~135 miles east of Hainan Island in the South China Sea when a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) armed J-11 fighter intercepted it. In a series of maneuvers that came within 30 feet of the P-8, the J-11 exposed its weapons load out and conducted a barrel roll over the U.S. aircraft, passing within 45 feet of the U.S. aircraft. While the incident ended without a collision or harm to the aircrew, it invoked memories of another that did not end as well—the April 2001 collision between a USN EP-3 and a PLAN J-8 in which the Chinese pilot perished. Pentagon Spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby described the encounter as “very, very close, very dangerous…unprofessional…unsafe…and…certainly not keeping with the kind of military-to-military relationship…we’d like to have…with China. … The message we’re sending back to China is that’s unacceptable and unhelpful to the military relationship that we would like to have with them.”

The P-8 Incident’s seriousness spurred the U.S. government to seek assurances that future interactions between military units would be conducted safely, resulting in eight weeks of negotiations and five weeklong meetings between two working groups of American and Chinese military officials with U.S. Navy representation on both teams. As a result, two Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) designed to enhance stability of bilateral military relations were signed at the November 2014 APEC Summit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan. This process fulfilled a suggestion by President Xi Jinping to President Obama at the June 2013 Sunnylands Summit to explore CBMs to improve the bilateral and regional military climate.