U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft.
Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images
SINGAPORE — The commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet said on Tuesday that he’s seen a rise in “unsafe” aerial intercepts by the Chinese military within the South China Sea region.
As recently as May, a Chinese fighter aircraft allegedly intercepted a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 maritime surveillance plane within the South China Sea region in a fashion that Australia’s defense department said was “dangerous” to its aircraft and crew. The department said the Chinese aircraft fired chaff that was sucked into the Australian plane’s engine.
“This reported increase within the air is clearly concerning… it is not a really forgiving environment if something goes mistaken if you’re flying within the air,” Karl Thomas said.
The Chinese embassy in Singapore didn’t immediately reply to CNBC’s request for comment.
Thomas said in a press briefing in Singapore that keeping sea lanes open is the “initially” mission of the U.S. Navy.
“Sea lanes are the lifeblood of our economies … having open sea lanes and having shipping that may operate … is incredibly necessary to maintain the economy running,” the vice admiral said.
About 80% of worldwide trade volume was carried by sea in 2021, based on the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
The South China Sea holds a number of the world’s busiest industrial shipping lanes. China claims sovereignty over almost the entire body of water, though other countries including america don’t acknowledge that claim and it hasn’t held up in a court of international arbitration.
Dangerous intercepts remain ‘infrequent’
Thomas was careful to notice that dangerous aerial intercepts remain rare.
“We’re not seeing it occur very regularly. It is not like daily, something’s happening. It’s an infrequent motion,” he said. “And then you definitely start asking yourself — is it since it’s an unprofessional pilot? Or is it something that is more broad than that?”
The commander defended so-called “freedom of navigation” operations by america and other countries as a part of a rules-based order in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
He maintained that China’s claims over the South China Sea must be “challenged.”
“When you don’t challenge it, the issue is that it will turn out to be the norm … People just accept it. After which hastily, people could make claims like the complete South China Sea is their territorial sea.”