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Upholding International Norms in the Skies

U.S., Allies and Partners Promote Air Safety Amid Beijing’s Reckless Intercepts


A People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) fighter jet intercepted a Canadian Armed Forces CP-140 Aurora aircraft multiple times in international airspace in October 2023 in a “dangerous and reckless” manner, yet another example of Beijing’s disregard for freedom of navigation and aircrew safety, officials said.

Such unsafe and unprofessional activities risk midair collisions and escalation. The nonstandard intercepts are part of a larger effort by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to assert excessive jurisdictional control in the Indo-Pacific, especially over the South China Sea, international legal experts explain.

“We’re solidly in international airspace,” Royal Canadian Air Force Maj. Gen. Iain Huddleston told reporters also aboard the patrol plane when the PLAAF fighter jet, armed with air-to-air missiles, came within 5 meters. The CP-140 Aurora was on a routine patrol to monitor shipping lanes in the East China Sea for violations of international oil sanctions against North Korea. “That last sequence was an unprofessional intercept. … It was very aggressive,” Huddleston said. 

Royal Canadian Navy Capt. Rob Watt, the nation’s defense attache to Japan, was also aboard, according to CBC News, Canada’s publicly owned news service.

Nonstandard intercepts of United States, Ally and Partner aircraft by China’s PLAAF are increasingly frequent. Such close intercepts, conducted for longer than necessary to identify aircraft, constitute a form of gray-zone harassment that creates unnecessary risk for crews, as well as third-party aircraft in the vicinity.

A day after the Canadian incident, U.S. defense officials said they had documented more than 180 such instances of “coercive and risky” behavior by Chinese military pilots against U.S. aircraft over the East China and South China seas since 2021, more than the total during the previous decade. “That’s nearly 200 cases where PLA operators have performed reckless maneuvers or discharged chaff, or shot off flares, or approached too rapidly or too close to U.S. aircraft — all as part of trying to interfere with the ability of U.S. forces to operate safely in places where we and every country in the world have every right to be under international law,” Ely Ratner, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said at an October 17 news conference. “And when you take into account cases of coercive and risky PLA intercepts against other states, the number increases to nearly 300 cases against U.S., Ally and Partner aircraft over the last two years.”

U.S. officials released newly declassified images and video showing PLAAF fighter pilots trying to intimidate U.S. military pilots in international airspace, in some cases flying within 7 meters of the aircraft. “It’s a centralized and concerted campaign to perform these risky behaviors in order to coerce a change in lawful U.S. operational activity,” Ratner said.

All nations may conduct air operations including lawful surveillance activities in international airspace for the purpose of understanding the operating environment, maintaining readiness, upholding navigational freedoms, and identifying and mitigating threats, according to legal experts. The PLAAF’s frequent nonstandard intercepts impede and infringe upon navigational freedoms.

The PLAAF “can and must stop this behavior, full stop,” U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), said at the news conference.

Just a week later, however, a PLAAF J-11 pilot executed a dangerous intercept of a U.S. Air Force B-52 conducting lawful, routine operations over the South China Sea. The Chinese military pilot “flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner, demonstrated poor airmanship by closing with uncontrolled excessive speed, flying below, in front of, and within 10 feet of the B-52, putting both aircraft in danger of collision,” USINDOPACOM stated, noting that the PLAAF pilot seemed unaware of how close he came to causing a collision.

In addition to creating unsafe conditions and increasing risks to aircraft operating legally, the PLAAF intercepts contradict recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency established in 1947 to provide guidance for the safe operation of aircraft in international airspace, including the interception of civil aircraft by state aircraft. This includes maintaining adequate distance to avoid a collision. Professionalism is characterized by nonprovocative maneuvers and proper airmanship that refrains from overtly aggressive actions, words or gestures. The PRC is a member state of the ICAO Council that governs the organization.

Although ICAO rules do not govern military air-to-air encounters, they serve as a basis for understanding normal and safe behavior globally. The PRC’s intercepts run counter to a memorandum of understanding it signed with the U.S. in 2014 to operate in a manner consistent with ICAO conventions and related tenets during air-to-air encounters.

The U.S., its Allies and Partners continue to promote the need for all countries to abide by internationally recognized standards for aerial intercepts to ensure the safety of personnel and assets and to preserve every nation’s right to operate in international airspace, including to conduct legal surveillance and maintain freedom of navigation.  

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