The Chinese paper Global Times warns of a possible “midair collision” if the United States continues flying aircraft over the South China Sea:
According to US defense officials, the Chinese jets came within about 15 meters of the US spy plane.Scenarios in which US spy planes face off against Chinese interceptor jets have become more frequent over the South China Sea. There is no absolute safety in this kind of interaction. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet had a midair collision with a US spy plane, in which a Chinese pilot died. This incident caused a major diplomatic crisis between China and the US.
If the Pentagon continues its close-up offshore surveillance operations against China, as our military prowess increases, more interceptions can be expected. As a result, the odds of another collision will go up. But if there is a recurrence, the calamity and sensation it causes will be much bigger than in 2001, when the Sino-US relationship was not as intense as it is now.
The simmering distrust between China and the US will probably explode if there is another collision. It will be extremely difficult for both sides to control the risks and damage.
The Chinese public will no longer accept a similar result to the 2001 accident, in which the damaged US spy plane safely landed at a Chinese airport and the crew was sent back to the US without a scratch. Most Chinese people hope China’s fighter jet would shoot down the spy plane if it trespasses on China’s territory again. The rise of public sentiment will impose enormous pressures on the Chinese government to deal with the aftermath.
Questionable framing of who is to blame aside, the Global Times is right that the United States has been stepping up its patrols in the South China Sea. The question at this point is who will blink first. If neither side does, things could get dicey.
The Pentagon, surely aware of the possibility of a repeat of the 2001 incident, wants to mount cameras on U.S. planes to film Chinese aircraft and demonstrate how dangerous their behavior is. The power dynamics are very different than they were fifteen years ago, and it’s far from assured that everyone would calm down if there were some kind of accident, like they did 15 years ago.