The United States has been flying in international airspace over the East and South China Seas to help protect freedom of flight and navigation for decades, and it will continue to do. However, recent dangerous behavior by Chinese pilots have shown a determination by the PRC to “coerce a change in lawful U.S. operational activity,” said Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs.
Assistant Secretary Ratner said the “risky and coercive” incidents by the People’s Liberation Army, known as the PLA, constitute “a disturbing trend.”
“Since the fall of 2021, we have seen more than 180 such incidents, more in the past two years than in the decade before that. 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,” he said.
On October 17, the Defense Department released declassified photos and footage of some of the intercepts.
“These images and videos speak for themselves,” said Assistant Secretary Ratner. “The skill and professionalism of American service members should not be the only thing standing between PLA fighter pilots and a dangerous, even fatal accident, and yet time after time, that is exactly what has prevented a disaster in the East and South China Seas.”
The allies and partners of the United States welcome the American presence in the region, Secretary Ratner said, “because it advances our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. … By contrast the PLA’s coercive and risky behavior … seeks to intimidate and coerce members of the international community into giving up their rights under international law.”
Assistant Secretary Ratner noted the United States has tried to re-establish high-level military-to-military communication with the PRC to prevent “competition from inadvertently veering into conflict,” and that the U.S. would keep up those efforts.
He emphasized, however, the United States “will continue to fly, sail, and operate safely and responsibly, wherever international law allows. Our forces have helped sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades, and we will continue to do so every day.”