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Sat. October 20, 2018
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U.S. Should Conclude the Negotiation on Rules for Aerial Encounters with China
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By Han Guo

In August 2014, a Chinese J-11 fighter jet flew within 20 feet of a US Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea, conducted a barrel roll, and flew by to demonstrate its missiles. On September 15th this year, another Chinese interceptor made a dangerous pass near an US RC-135 surveillance aircraft, almost colliding with it over the Yellow Sea. The second incident happened just a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States.

The United States should conclude the negotiations with China on an agreed code of conduct to reduce the risks of such encounters. Talks started after the 2014 incident, but have progressed slowly. China claims that US reconnaissance flights along its coast are an infringement of its sovereignty and national security, and demands the immediate cease. The United States, in turn, insists on its right to fly in international airspace, accusing Chinese interceptors of “dangerous and unprofessional behaviors.”

As the impasse continues, more unexpected aerial encounters will occur, prompting risks of misjudgments and accidents. To ameliorate the situation, it is in the interest of the United States to reach the agreement with China on an aerial code of conduct. It will reduce tension, build trust and render the encounters more predictable. There are several reasons for doing so.

First, both sides want to avoid the accident and crisis that took place 14 years ago. On April 1st, 2001, a Chinese J-8 fighter crashed with a U.S. EP-3 SIGINT aircraft 70 miles from the Hainan Island. The Chinese pilot was presumed dead and the EP-3 aircraft was forced to land at the Hainan airport, where its 24 crew members were detained and interrogated for 10 days. The incident caused a major diplomatic crisis, fueling anti-American resentment and strong nationalistic reactions in China. Today neither side would want to face a repeat of the Hainan Incident, with the aggravated population and the pressure for escalation.  

Second, there are successful and applicable precedents. For example, A US-Soviet agreement in 1972 on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas led to a significant drop in accidents and aerial incidents. It is a proof that an agreement with China can work. The details and experience in the crafting of the agreement could also be referenced and utilized.

Third, there are positive signals from China- and an opportunity to conclude a good agreement. Negotiation made progress when the Chinese military signed a memorandum of understanding with the Pentagon last November. It presented the views of both sides on reconnaissance missions, and stated that they are willing to cooperate to ensure safety in the aerial and naval encounters. The document wasn’t binding, but talks continue, and both leaders highlighted the significance of the issue when they met in Washington this September. It seems that everything is in place, as long as the US government and Congress could pave the way for the issue.

Would an agreement impede the capability of US military? No. It would actually imply Chinese acceptance of the US reconnaissance missions, and thereby enhance US access to the vast international waters and airspace in the West Pacific.

Would the Chinese break the deal? Also unlikely. China shares an interest in avoiding unnecessary risk. A signed document would also put China’s credibility on the line. Moreover, the formidable military forces of the United States serve as a powerful deterrent against provocations.

Brave servicemen and women fly reconnaissance missions on a daily basis. The United States government should do everything possible to put keep them out of harm’s way. An aerial code of conduct with China will make their lives safer, keep the US-China relations on the right track, and thereby make the world a safer place.

Han Guo is a Masters degree student of Security Policy Studies program at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

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