Just a Little Harmless Fun Over the South China Sea?

A close encounter between Chinese and American aircraft over the South China Sea a few days ago ended with damage only to bilateral sensibilities, but that’s more than enough.

The Pentagon accused the Chinese fighter pilot of making a dangerous intercept of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane operating innocently in international airspace. The Chinese reject this version of the incident, maintaining that their pilot’s conduct was professional and above reproach, posing no danger to the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon.

The Pentagon retaliated by publishing a photo of the Chinese fighter executing a barrel roll, giving the American pilot a good look at its weaponry from a mere 20 feet away. As one U.S. defense official remarked, “The only place I know where 20 feet between wingtips is considered safe distance is a Blue Angels air show.”

Chinese officials used the incident to point out that close-in reconnaissance of their sovereign territory is considered by them to be an irritant, a violation of international law and a dangerous provocation.

Others have suggested a more benign interpretation — that the Chinese pilot was just showing off — a “Hey, watch this!” moment having nothing to do with international law or diplomacy. Just a high-spirited young man in his nifty jet having some fun over the South China Sea.

All of the above may be true. A lot depends on one’s definition of “dangerously close,” for example. Fighter pilots are notoriously nonchalant about such matters, and consider the rest of us to be squeamish, nervous nellies whose proper place is safely on the ground. That’s why they’re flying jet fighters and we aren’t.

Why, then, is the Pentagon so worked up over these harmless high-jinks?

It might have something to do with what happened in 2001, when a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft off Hainan Island, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the Navy plane to make an emergency landing on the island. Washington severed military relations with China after that episode.

Why aren’t the Chinese bowing apologetically? Don’t they realize that somebody could have gotten killed, and that it could have scuttled years of careful cooperation and earnest diplomacy between two great powers?

Maybe it has something to do with their view of Chinese sovereignty. They are known to be touchy on the subject.

It seems there’s a running dispute over exactly where foreign aircraft can fly over those waters off the Chinese coast. The U.S. maintains all vessels have a right to freedom of navigation outside another country’s territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the coast under international law. China has at times said that that freedom doesn’t apply to military surveillance.

From their point of view, it is the United States who should apologize; and more importantly, desist from such encroachments in the future. Xu Guangyu, a former People’s Liberation Army general, characterized the interception as “a form of admonishment” to the U.S. for spying at China’s doorstep.

It’s not such an inscrutable interception after all.

Clearly, what needs to be done here is to take the issue out of the joystick-wielding hands of the daring young pilots. Responsible officials of both governments and their militaries need to step in and clarify the rules of the road.

The issue of permissible proximity may take a long time to resolve. But it’s certainly time that the two sides undertake the effort, in a spirit of friendship and cooperation, while such sentiments still exist.

In the meantime, specific measures can be taken to avert further confrontations of this kind. One problem is the lack of clear, specific directives from Washington, leaving it up to the Navy and Air Force. But their service-specific checklists sometimes create confusion as to what is acceptable behavior and what the Chinese can expect at any given time.

For their part, the Chinese, without any loss of face, can quietly admonish their pilots to seek recreation on their own time, in less sensitive traffic lanes.

Of course, it may be that the Chinese are not really interested in appeasing the Americans. It may be that they have been studying the Occidental mind and have come to the conclusion that aggressive behavior offers certain rewards, taking lessons from Vladimir Putin, you might say. If the Russians can do as they wish in the Crimea, while thumbing their nose at NATO, why, they reason, can’t the Chinese have their way in their own backyard?

Some at the Pentagon aren’t sure themselves what to make of it all.

“The Chinese are trying to be more active in establishing good quality military-to-military relations. There’s just something different and unique about what’s going on in the South China Sea,” a senior U.S. official said. “Something’s out of whack.”

Yes, and it’s time to see about getting it back into whack.