China Raised Issue of US Spy Flights During Military Talks: Pentagon

By Phil Stewart 14 November 2014

WASHINGTON — China raised the thorny subject of US military spy flights during talks that led to agreements this week on reducing friction between the two militaries, but was told US missions in international airspace and waters would continue, the US military said.

The closed-door conversations underscored China’s sensitivity to surveillance by US P-8 Poseidon spy planes and other aircraft, especially off Hainan Island, home to a major Chinese submarine base. A Chinese intercept of a P-8 plane in international airspace off Hainan in August was described as dangerous by Washington.

US President Barack Obama announced the military agreements on Wednesday after meeting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing.

They cover the notification of major military activities, including exercises, and rules of behavior for air and maritime encounters. Guidelines on encounters between naval surface vessels had been drawn up, the White House said, adding similar guidelines governing air-to-air encounters would be formulated.

At one point during the discussions, Chinese officials had raised the matter of US military spy flights that, in Beijing’s view, have come too close to Hainan, said Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool, a Pentagon spokesman.

“China did raise the issue of restricting US operations in international airspace and both sides discussed their positions,” Pool told Reuters.

The Chinese Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.

China sees the air space around Hainan as part of its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, which, in its view, ought to be restricted. The US military says it has the right to fly any kind of mission it chooses in international airspace, which begins 12 nautical miles from a country’s coastline.

The incident in August, when a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a P-8 Poseidon plane some 135 miles (215 km) east of Hainan, highlighted the risks as the two militaries rub up against each other in the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean.

The Chinese jet made several passes, crossing over and under it. At one point, it flew wingtip-to-wingtip and then performed a barrel roll over the top of the spy plane, US officials have said.

China has dismissed the criticism as groundless and said the pilot had kept a safe distance.

The rules on military encounters are meant to apply everywhere, even in each country’s exclusive economic zones, Pool said.

“We have consistently opposed any Chinese proposals that would limit US operations in the air or sea beyond the territorial limits of coastal states, place US alliances at risk [or] constrain activities with US allies or partners,” Pool added.