The U.S. is concerned Chinese jets may engage in further risky intercepts of its military aircraft, even after starting talks aimed at avoiding such encounters, the new commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific said.
A Chinese fighter jet flew within 20 feet of a U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft flying at more than 400 miles an hour near Hainan Island -- China’s gateway to the contested South China Sea -- on Aug. 19, an encounter that the Pentagon described as “unsafe and unprofessional.”
“I never say never,” General Lori Robinson, 55, said when asked if talks meant such behavior would cease. “What’s important is that we do start the dialogue and that we do come to an understanding of what a traditional intercept is.”
Robinson replaced General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle as commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific on Oct. 16. Though she has no specific meetings scheduled, she said she hopes to discuss air safety when she meets Chinese military personnel at the Zhuhai airshow in Guangdong and a training conference this month. The aim is for China to agree to abide by intercept procedures outlined by international standards, she said.
The air force has no plans to change how it conducts its missions in the region, said Robinson, who has more than 900 flying hours and was promoted to the rank of four-star general when she replaced Carlisle. Robinson, who joined the air force in 1982, is the first woman to have an air force command. She was previously vice commander of the air combat command at the Langley air force base in Virginia, according to her air force biography.
The core of the U.S.-China air dispute is what activities are permitted within a country’s 200-mile (322-kilometer) offshore exclusive economic zone, where coastal states have sovereign rights over marine resources. The U.S. says international law permits such flights, which have been a standard practice for decades. China objects, claiming such freedom is reserved for civilian aircraft.
Asked if she thought the August incident occurred because of a “rogue” Chinese pilot or was an officially backed action, Robinson said: “We encourage safe and acceptable flight practices throughout the region.” Robinson, who is responsible for air force operations for more than half the globe, with oversight of 46,000 personnel, spoke in a phone interview from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Carlisle met with Chinese General Huang Guoxian on Sept. 23 to start the safe-flying discussions, according to Captain Susan Harrington of the PACAF’s public affairs bureau. They talked about safe and non-traditional intercepts, Robinson said.
The air force will continue its missions regardless of any air identification defense zones declared by China, she said. Last November China announced a zone over the East China Sea that includes islands both it and Japan claim as territory and demanded civil and military aircraft present flight plans before entering the space. Two U.S. unarmed B-52 bombers flew through the zone after it was declared.
“Air defense identification zones are not prohibited in international law, but nor are they specifically addressed in international conventions,” Robinson said. “So as such we will continue to professionally conduct operations in international airspace and United States air forces in the Pacific will not change how we conduct those missions in the region, all in accordance with international law.”
This would apply should China declare an air zone over the South China Sea, she said. China claims about 90 percent of the area and has disputes with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. About half of the world’s merchant tonnage flows through the waters, carrying about $5.3 trillion of goods each year.
China has been involved in a number of disputes in the sea. It dragged an oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam in May. It completed an upgraded airstrip in the Paracel Islands and also has an artificial island project in the Spratly Islands, both of which are claimed by Vietnam.
Its actions to back its territorial claims are sometimes seen as an effort to change the balance of power in Asia, where the U.S. had almost unfettered air and sea access for half a century.
“China is a country that is interested in continuing to be part of the region and I think they look at the the U.S. as part of the region,” Robinson said.
She said the air force’s presence and standing in the region hasn’t changed since President Barack Obama announced the U.S.’s ‘‘pivot-to-Asia’’ policy in 2011. U.S. aircrew operate 360 aircraft, according to a PACAF video.
“From a Pacific air force perspective, we’ve always been in the region, our presence has been in the region and our presence just continues to be in the region,” Robinson said. For the air force the pivot means building on partnerships and military-to-military relationships, said Robinson, who has served in a variety of roles, including air battle manager.
Robinson said that an early priority of her command will be fostering military-to-military engagement with countries in Asia including China.