WASHINGTON -- A Chinese J-16 jet fighter flew directly in front of an American surveillance plane flying in international airspace over the South China Sea last Friday, forcing the U.S. Air Force plane to fly through the fighter's wake turbulence and causing the U.S. aircraft to shake.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command labeled the Chinese intercept as "unprofessional" and "an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver" and released a video taken from inside the American plane's cockpit that captured the incident.
"A People's Republic of China J-16 fighter pilot performed an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver during the intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft, May 26, 2023," said a statement from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
"The PRC pilot flew directly in front of the nose of the RC-135, forcing the U.S. aircraft to fly through its wake turbulence," said the statement. "The RC-135 was conducting safe and routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace, in accordance with international law."
The video released by INDOPACOM captured the moment that the Chinese fighter streaked across the American plane's flight path at what a U.S. official said was a distance of 400 feet.
Taken from inside the RC-135's cockpit, presumably by a crew member, the video also captured the moment when the reconnaissance aircraft flew through the wake turbulence causing the aircraft to shake.
American aircraft and ships transiting in the international airspace and waters in the South China Sea are routinely harassed by Chinese ships and aircraft. The American aircraft and warships transit through the region regularly to counter China's broad territorial maritime claims.
The American statement reaffirmed that the "The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate - safely and responsibly - wherever international law allows, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force will continue to fly in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law."
"We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law," it added.
A senior U.S. defense official speaking Tuesday about Friday's incident to a small group of reporters expressed the belief that the Chinese harassment is coordinated and increasing in frequency.
"We don't believe it's done by pilots operating independently," said the official. "We believe it's part of a wider pattern we see in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and elsewhere."
The last such incident occurred on Dec. 21, 2022, when a PLA J-11 fighter pilot "performed an unsafe maneuver during an intercept of a U.S. Air force RC-135," according to INDO-PACOM.
The official noted that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials have publicly voiced concern over what they say is an increase in unsafe incidents by Chinese military assets that could have the potential to create an unsafe incident or miscalculation.
The senior defense official said the U.S. would express its concerns about Friday's incident "through the appropriate, established diplomatic and military channels."
Austin is headed to Asia this week for meetings with regional defense leaders but he will not meet with his Chinese counterpart as China declined a U.S. offer for a meeting at an international security conference in Singapore.
The senior defense official said the timing of the U.S. military's release of the video was not tied to that meeting but was instead "subject to the U.S. military declassification process and U.S. diplomatic communication process."