Asia Pacific

China denies intercept of ‘nuke-sniffer’ plane was unsafe, says U.S. must halt surveillance flights

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

China has denied accusations by the United States that its fighter jets conducted an “unprofessional” intercept of an American aircraft flying in international airspace.

The U.S. Air Force said Friday that two Chinese fighter Su-30 fighter jets had intercepted a U.S. radiation-detecting plane in international airspace over the Yellow Sea off the Korean Peninsula.

The U.S. aircraft, a U.S. WC-135 Constant Phoenix, known colloquially as a “nuke sniffer,” was intercepted Wednesday during what the air force termed “a routine mission.”

But in a statement posted to its website late Friday, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian called the claim “factually incorrect.”

“The relevant behavior was professional and safe,” Wu was quoted as saying.

“The root reason for military security issues between the air force and navy of China and the U.S. is that U.S. planes and ships frequently conduct surveillance near China’s territory,” he said.

“We hope the U.S. side can stop relevant surveillance activities, to prevent such things from happening,” Wu added.

A U.S. Air Force spokeswoman had said the intercept was being addressed with Beijing via appropriate diplomatic and military channels.

The Chinese jets came within 150 feet (45 meters) of the U.S. plane — with one of the Su-30s flying inverted, or upside down, directly above the American plane — CNN reported, citing unidentified U.S. defense officials.

The Pentagon has often deployed one of the air force’s two WC-135 aircraft to the Asia-Pacific region after North Korea’s first underground nuclear test in October 2006 in an apparent effort to detect atomic tests by the reclusive regime in Pyongyang.

The aircraft uses external flow-through devices that collect air and debris samples that are later sent to a lab for analysis.

A WC-135 was deployed to the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base in Okinawa last month amid rising tensions with the North as the nuclear-armed country marked two key anniversaries with a spate of missile tests.

While intercepts such as Wednesday’s are rare, a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese military plane were also involved in an “unsafe” encounter in international airspace over the disputed South China Sea in February.

In that incident, the two planes flew within 1,000 feet (300 meters) of each other in the area of the contested Scarborough Shoal, just 230 km (140 miles) from the Philippine coast, media reports said.

Beijing and Washington have been in talks about ways to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development program, and the intercept could add another divisive element to already fraught discussions.