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China demands US military 'stop spying' over South China Sea

China has rejected US claims that its fighter jets maneuvered unsafely when they intercepted an American navy reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, and demanded that the US end such missions close to Chinese territory.

The Chinese jets monitored the US plane from an acceptable distance and operated in a safe and professional manner, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told journalists at a regularly scheduled news briefing.

“According to the related Chinese authorities, the US allegation is not true,” Hong said.

Frequent reconnaissance missions by US navy vessels’ aircraft off the Chinese coast jeopardize China’s sea and air safety, Hong said. “We urge the US to immediately stop spying activities and prevent such events from happening again,” he said.

The Pentagon said two Chinese J-11 fighters flew within about 15 meters (50 feet) of the US EP-3 Aries aircraft on Tuesday, forcing the US pilot to descend sharply to avoid a collision. It said the US plane was conducting routine operations in international airspace.

It characterized the incident as an unsafe intercept and said it is being reviewed.

The US has sought to prevent such confrontations through frequent communication and the signing of an agreement on handling unexpected encounters at sea and in the air.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said there were plenty of ways for the US and Chinese militaries to communicate.

“The problem isn’t, ‘Are you talking?’ The problem is this kind of behavior, this very unsafe and dangerous behavior in the air which puts people’s lives at risk unnecessarily,” he told reporters in Washington.

Such incidents may now be on the increase as the US challenges China’s claims that its newly created artificial islands in the South China Sea enjoy legal rights to territorial seas and airspace. China says it is entitled to keep watch over such airspace and seas.

China has long been irked by US reconnaissance missions off the Chinese island province of Hainan, which sits at the northern end of the South China Sea and is home to a number of highly sensitive naval and air installations.

In 2001, a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US surveillance plane in which the Chinese pilot was killed and the American crew detained on Hainan led to a crisis in US-China relations.