WASHINGTON – In what is shaping up to be the first test of a pledge by American and Chinese military leaders to keep communication lines open and stop retaliating for defense operations, the Pentagon is trying to tamp down alarms sounding over reports that China recently scrambled fighter planes to intercept a U-2 reconnaissance plane near Taiwan.
“We fly reconnaissance missions in international space routinely, and it is not unusual that the [People’s Republic of China] scrambles fighters,” Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said Wednesday. “There was no danger involved in this particular incident.”
Two Chinese Sukhoi-27 fighters shadowing a U-2 Dragon Lady on June 29 reportedly followed it across the disputed “centerline” border between China and Taiwan, the first time that has happened since 2001.
In January, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a highlypublicized visit to Beijing, setting the stage for a new era in which military relations between Washington and Beijing could weather these kind of incidents and disagreements. This one, it turns out, comes just weeks after China hosted Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for an extensive relationship-building tour of the country, reciprocating a Washington visit in May by Mullen's counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde.
On Monday, Mullen told reporters in Washington, “This is international airspace in this case, and we won't be deterred from flying in international airspace.”
Beijing responded in Wednesday’s edition of China Daily, the state-run English-language newspaper, saying, “[The] onus is on the U.S. to avoid such provocative flights, which can and will cause grave damage to relations between the two countries.”
The paper, noting the difficult military-to-military relations, quoted American poet Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
While in other statements, Chinese officials called the event routine but asserted U.S. reconnaissance operations “severely harmed” efforts to build better relations.
Lapan would not provide details of the intercept, citing Pentagon rules preventing discussing intelligence operations. But, he said, the Defense Department is certain the intercept did not happen at that border, according to information provided by U.S. Pacific Command.
So, is this business as usual? “In some ways, it is,” Lapan said.
Some analysts are not convinced that the Chinese feel that way. "The argument that they were in international airspace doesn’t really mean much to the Chinese as far as intelligence preservation is concerned,” Gary Li, intelligence analyst at Britain’s Exclusive Analysis, told the English-language newspaper Taipei Times. A U2 plane can still spy into China from that distance, he said.
Mullen said the U.S. would not halt the missions and allow the Chinese to move in.
“We're not going to do that, from my perspective. These reconnaissance flights are important,” he said, “I think we both have to be very careful about how we fly them. We have to be careful about the intercepts.”