China delivered a one-two punch in the East China Sea this week, leading two provocative maneuvers that have triggered protests from Washington and Tokyo.
First, on Wednesday, two Chinese fighters led a dangerous intercept of a U.S. surveillance aircraft tasked with “sniffing” for evidence of a North Korean nuclear test. The Washington Post has the details:
Two Chinese SU-30 fighters flew up close to an American WC-135 on Wednesday, the U.S. Air Force said in a statement, saying the American aircrew had described the intercept as “unprofessional,” based on the Chinese pilot’s maneuvers and the speeds and proximity involved.
“The issue is being addressed with China through appropriate diplomatic and military channels,” said Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Lori Hodge, adding a U.S. military investigation into the intercept was underway. […]
The U.S. official told CNN the Chinese jets came within 150 feet of the U.S. plane, with one of the SU-30s flying inverted, or upside down, directly above the American plane.
China is downplaying the incident’s significance, but this doesn’t look like an isolated case of an overzealous pilot flying too close to comfort. The very next day, the Chinese got up to more tricks in the East China Sea, spooking Japan by sending vessels and a drone near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Reuters:
Japan scrambled fighter jets on Thursday after four Chinese coastguard vessels entered what Japan considers its territorial waters near disputed East China Sea islets and a drone-like object flew near one ship, Japan said. […]
“This is escalating the situation and absolutely unacceptable,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told a news conference on Friday, referring to the incursion and drone flight.
“We regard this as a serious infringement of Japan’s sovereignty.”
Taken together, the interactions certainly look like a challenge—and they closely parallel a similar pair of incidents last June. Then as now, China intercepted a U.S. aircraft over the East China Sea the day before sending a frigate near the Senkaku Islands. And this is, of course, part of a wider pattern of Beijing poking and prodding its rivals, gradually intensifying its maneuvers to test the limits of what it can get away with.
Under Obama, the Chinese calculated that it could get away with such provocations at minimal cost. Will they come to the same conclusion about Trump?