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Explanation of Chinese fighters intercept of US plane may be sought at Hawaii conference

The United States says China has some explaining to do after two Chinese J-11 fighters on Tuesday intercepted a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea in an encounter described as “unsafe.”

That discussion could come next week in Hawaii.

“I’m told that the next Military Maritime Consultative Agreement talks are actually scheduled for May 24 and 25 in Hawaii,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. “So there is a well-established diplomatic and military channel to work through these kinds of concerns.”

Earnest said the Pentagon is reviewing the Tuesday intercept, which occurred “during a routine U.S. patrol in the South China Sea.” NBC News reported that the Chinese jets came within 50 feet of the U.S. aircraft.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said he was not aware of any specific communication with China over the incident.

“Obviously, we share the concerns that were expressed by the Defense Department over these unsafe maneuvers,” Kirby said. “They (China) are not doing anything to lessen tensions and to do anything to decrease the possibility for miscalculations.”

China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Thursday that the the EP-3 was conducting reconnaissance “close to” China’s Hainan Island, which has seen a military buildup and is a base for a growing fleet of submarines.

Hong said the United States is mistaken about the characterization of the fighter intercept.

“In accordance with laws and regulations, the two Chinese military aircraft followed and monitored the U.S. plane from a safe distance without taking any dangerous actions,” Hong said.

Hong added that “it must be pointed out that U.S. military vessels and aircraft frequently carry out reconnaissance in Chinese coastal waters, seriously endangering Chinese maritime and airspace security.” He said China was demanding that the United States cease the “close reconnaissance” to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Military representatives from the U.S. and China met at Pacific Air Forces headquarters in Hawaii Nov. 21-24 for talks over military air and naval safety.

The Military Maritime Consultative Agreement was signed by both countries in 1998. The bi-annual talks are are a mechanism “designed to provide open and transparent communication to address concerns and develop common understandings between U.S. and PRC air and naval forces in order to avoid unsafe incidents and minimize risk,” Pacific Air Forces said in a release tied to the last meeting.

Col. Brian Delamater, chief of Pacific Air Forces Advanced and Warfighter Integration Division, and Senior Capt. Liang Yang, deputy director operations department, Navy headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army, were among those who attended.

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