UPDATES TO ADD FOREIGN MINISTRY RESPONSE
By Mahmut Atanur
BEIJING (AA) – Beijing has responded to reports of Chinese jets intercepting a United States military aircraft over the disputed South China Sea by calling on Washington to stop close reconnaissance.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei also told reporters Thursday that the two Chinese fighter jets involved in the interception Tuesday had maintained a safe distance from the U.S. reconnaissance plane.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon said the U.S. aircraft had been conducting a "routine patrol" in international airspace when the Chinese jets approached it in an “unsafe” manner.
Beijing’s national defense ministry insisted earlier Thursday that the incident had probably concerned “the close-in reconnaissance by U.S. military aircraft against China”.
“We will embark on understanding and evaluating the relevant situation," the state-run China Daily reported the ministry as saying.
The interception 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.