25 August 2014

Going Maverick: Lessons from China’s Buzzing of a U.S. Navy Aircraft

Andrew S. Erickson and Emily de La Bruyere, “Going Maverick: Lessons from China’s Buzzing of a U.S. Navy Aircraft,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal,  25 August 2014.

Many have evoked the film “Top Gun” in describing a recent confrontation between a Chinese J-11 fighter and U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane off of Hainan island in the South China Sea. Based on U.S. accounts of the encounter, that movie parallel is apt – with the very important distinction that Hainan is not Hollywood.

The encounter occurred at approximately 9 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 19, during what Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby termed “routine” operations in international airspace 220 kilometers (about 135 miles) off Hainan Island’s coast.

According to the Pentagon’s Friday statement, the Chinese jet first crossed under the U.S. aircraft at close range, before flying up at a 90-degree angle directly in front of the American P-8 – displaying a belly loaded with weapons. After swinging its wingtips “within 20 feet” of the U.S. plane, the Chinese jet then flew a barrel roll over the P-8, passing within 45 feet of the patrol plane’s top.

The “Top Gun” similarity ends with that roll. When Tom Cruise’s Maverick buzzes enemy MiGs in the film, his risky maneuvers are designed to intimidate fellow fighter jets threatening a U.S. carrier. The American aircraft was no fighter jet, and represented no overt threat. Rather, the P-8 is a submarine-hunting patrol aircraft. It was operating in international airspace, according to routine patterns. It remains unclear whether the American plane was armed but, even if it were, its weapons would have been light – certainly not capable of shooting down other planes. One U.S. Defense Department official compared the Navy aircraft to a “school bus,” and the Chinese jet to “a Ferrari” easily outmaneuvering it.

The past decade has seen a series of confrontations, both at air and at sea, between the U.S. and China, including several in the past few months. Still, despite the many precedents, Washington labeled Tuesday’s “one of the most unsafe intercepts” since April 1, 2001, when a Chinese J-8 fighter jet crashed into an American surveillance plane, killing the J-8’s pilot and forcing the EP-3’s crew to land their damaged aircraft in Hainan. The 24 Americans were held there for 10 days.

So far, Beijing has rejected U.S. characterizations of the encounter, even blaming the U.S. for the incident and urging the end of ‘close’ reconnaissance missions. Ministry of National Defense spokesman Yang Yujun said on August 23, in a response to Washington’s complaints, that China’s fighter jet was simply conducting “routine identification and verification.” During the incident, he said, the Chinese pilot “maintained a safe distance from the U.S. aircraft.” He then declared the American accusation “totally untenable.” As Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments expert Evan Montgomery suggested to one of the authors, “Maybe they’ll borrow a line from Top Gun: ‘Just keeping up diplomatic relations.’”

A photo released by the Pentagon suggests the Chinese jet did indeed perform a barrel roll, challenging Beijing’s assertion that the Chinese pilot was acting professionally. A senior U.S. defense official, speaking to The Wall Street Journal, likewise rejected Beijing’s claims that safe distance was maintained. “The only place I know where 20 feet between wingtips is considered safe distance is a Blue Angels show.”

Even if the Chinese pilot’s intent was to show off, this was no air show. Were the PLA to down a U.S. aircraft as it did in 2001, the political ramifications would be enormous. At best, they would unravel much of the progress that has been made subsequently in strengthening U.S.-China relations.

The sticking point between the U.S. and China is disagreement over what sort of surveillance is allowed under international law. The U.S., and most nations, allow surveillance activities outside of territorial waters but within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and the airspace above. Beijing opposes this. Instead, it uses its nonstandard reading of international law as grounds for routinely interfering with foreign vessels and aircraft, including risky intercepts of foreign aircraft in its recently declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a portion of the East China Sea. The P-8 Incident calls to mind the disturbingly vague “emergency defensive measures” that the PLA Air Force mentioned when disruptively introducing the zone.

Earlier this month, it looked as though China might be changing its tune: The PLA sent a spy ship to collect intelligence in the undisputed U.S. EEZ off Hawaii – right in the middle of a U.S.-hosted international exercise in which four Chinese vessels were officially participating. Despite the questionable etiquette of the move, it remained in line with the American reading of maritime law. The U.S., as a result, tolerated the ship’s presence. Simultaneously, American thinkers and officials underscored the contradiction in China forbidding surveillance operations in its own EEZ while conducting similar missions in that of the U.S. Some, including the authors, suggested that Beijing might need to adopt a more tolerant stance towards foreign surveillance operations. Tuesday’s incident indicates contrary intentions.

Whether or not China dials down its risky behavior, this confrontation highlights the pitfalls of a default American service-by-service approach to military-to-military relations with China. Interactions between the U.S. and Chinese navies have improved of late, with the Chinese side seeking to codify such efforts still further under the rubric of “new-type Navy-to-Navy relations.” Yet all these efforts did nothing to prevent a U.S. Navy aircraft operating legally and normally from being harassed dangerously by a Chinese fighter jet.

This is a valuable opportunity to view U.S. Navy interactions with China comprehensively. Washington and Beijing unquestionably share many interests and should do their best to pursue them. While it would be ideal to have good relations with China’s navy, however, the U.S. Navy should not be an ardent suitor. If the overall picture remains troubled, it must be particularly careful not to make unilateral concessions. It thus matters deeply how the Chinese navy’s air arm treated the U.S. Navy P-8.

All this raises the question of whether U.S. services are being given adequate strategic guidance and coordination at an increasingly challenging time for America’s East Asian presence and influence. While cartoonish versions of services independently pursuing self-serving national policies independently percolate in the minds of the uninformed, those who actually interact with the U.S. military know only too well that its leadership is both constitutionally bound and culturally determined to seek civilian guidance, most importantly from the president. Absent clear, specific directives from the executive, there is a tendency to default to service-specific checklists, which China can then exploit in divide-and-conquer fashion, e.g., by persuading the U.S. Navy that it enjoys a special relationship…until U.S. Navy aircraft are treated as persona non grata in international airspace.

The Obama administration can and should fix both the substance and the optics of this problem now before further damage results. It should formulate and release an Asia-Pacific Strategy (pdf) that articulates a positive vision and a set of norms for this vital yet vulnerable region, together with consequences for any party that engages in risky, aggressive behavior that could destabilize the delicate peace therein—consequences beyond issuing another démarche that Beijing can simply ignore. The current embarrassing aerial ‘he said, she said’ blows off legitimate U.S. concerns. But a clear policy with consequences would offer change — change that everyone can believe in whether they like it or not.