By Kasim Ileri
WASHINGTON (AA) – Two Chinese fighter jets have intercepted a United States military reconnaissance plane over the disputed South China Sea, according to the Pentagon.
Spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza said in a statement Wednesday that the U.S. Navy E-P3 reconnaissance aircraft was flying a "routine patrol" in international airspace Tuesday when two Chinese tactical aircraft intercepted it.
"Initial reports characterized the incident as unsafe," Baldanza underlined, saying that the Chinese J-11 fighters flew around 50 feet (15 meters) from the U.S. aircraft.
The incident comes a week after an American guided missile destroyer sailed near a reef in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands chain, in the latest of U.S. "freedom of navigation" operations -- moves Beijing had called “provocative”.
China considers almost all of the maritime area its territory, but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.
China's reclamation work in the region, which includes the building of airfields on some disputed islands, has prompted the U.S. and its allies to express alarm over the maritime expansion, which they suspect is aimed at extending its military reach.
China has accused Washington of "militarizing" the region.
The sea, thought to have large oil and gas deposits, is a critical asset for global shipping and fishing that sees more than $5 trillion in maritime trade every year.
The Pentagon statement Wednesday said that in the last year, the Department of Defense “has seen improvements in PRC [People Republic of China] actions, flying in a safe and professional manner.”