Second, what’s worrisome is that Chinese official justifications for dangerous intercepts appear to indicate acceptance of this practice by the PLA frontline units—at least acquiesced even if not officially sanctioned by the top party and military leadership. Predictably, Beijing would dismiss such close-proximity intercepts as completely legitimate. “The relevant actions were professional and safe,” Senior Colonel Wu Qian, the Chinese defense ministry spokesman stated in response to the May 2017 unsafe intercepts.
Well, never mind that in the first place, there is no tactical or intelligence rationale, or value to maneuver a highly agile fighter jet this close to a typically ungainly target like the EP-3 or P-8, do barrel rolls or pull up from underneath. Therefore, such maneuvers are either trying to impress the pilot’s aerobatic finesse upon the victim, or purely for intimidation purposes, or even both. It’s baffling to see Beijing justifying such antics. But one just needs to look back in history.
Remember Lieutenant Commander Wang Wei? He was the Chinese naval fighter pilot presumed dead after colliding with a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane during an unsafe intercept in international airspace off Hainan back in April 2001. Over sixteen years since, this incident might have faded away from the outsiders’ memories. But Wang remained deeply etched in collective Chinese nationalistic memory—a noteworthy victim of contemporary China’s sufferance under foreign humiliation.
Wang’s loss back then was a tremendous blow to the PLA combat aviation, for he enjoyed an illustrious record as an accomplished fighter pilot, one of the few who swiftly qualified for “all weather” overwater flight operations and one of the first amongst his peers to hit 1,000 flying hours. However, for all his accolades as an up-and-rising star of PLA combat aviation, Wang was also known to be a risk-taker —a trait which resulted in the collision and his demise. Yet Beijing never regarded his actions as reckless. Following the fateful incident, Wang was posthumously conferred the honorific title “Guardian of Territorial Airspace and Waters,” and the Order of Heroic Exemplar First Class—the highest military decoration awarded by the Chinese Government. If anything, it appeared to be the top leadership’s glowing endorsement for daredevil, if recklessly fatal, action.
Wang has since been immortalized and sets the benchmark for PLA combat aviators to emulate. They are expected to demonstrate similar patriotic zeal when confronting foreign aggressors. A comic strip designed by some avid Chinese artist, revolving around contemporary PLA intercepts of American plane (in this rendition, the P-8 was featured), and several memorials of the lost aviator, including a specially dedicated website , impressed upon this obligation.
Back then, Wang flew the mediocre J-8 fighter jet, a late-Cold War relic gradually phased out from frontline service. The present PLA that Xi presided over during the recent parade is bristling with newer, state-of-the-art equipment, and more in the pipeline. Wang’s successors—today’s young breed of PLA combat aviators—fly vastly more capable Sukhoi jets and indigenous clones. Just like how newfound material clout has given Beijing newfound confidence to seek its place under the sun, including its way of cherry picking on international rules and norms, so is the case for these aviators.
Yet the picture is more troubling than that. Wang didn't pull a barrel roll at American planes; his younger successors did while flying more capable jets. Even if one considers conservatism within the frontline units, at least the nationalistic and brash ones would strive to best Wang's zeal. Such customary, inherent instincts that typify a combat aviator—that being aggressiveness and initiative—could only be fed steroids by loud and shrill popular sentiments carrying certain societal expectations of their duties.
And the warning sign is worrisome. In February this year, an armed Russian Su-24 jet buzzed the USS Porter in the Black Sea, closing within 200 yards of the destroyer at an altitude of just 300 feet and a speed in excess of 500 knots. Chinese netizens cheered the daredevil action and even called upon the PLA to emulate the Russians. Granted, this might not be mainstream, but it does have a potential to magnify into one. Somewhat uncannily, three months after the Black Sea incident the pair of unsafe intercepts over the East and South China Seas took place. Did popular sentiments have an effect of egging on PLA combat aviators to prove their zeal? We won’t know with perfect certainty.
But what’s certain is that when foreign militaries seek to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in international domains near Chinese coasts, they can expect more aggressive behavior from PLA service personnel helming high-performance killing machines. Forget about Beijing’s double standard regarding user state’s rights in the EEZ. Believing that China will alter its behavior just because of foreign criticisms amounts to dangerous wishful thinking. One can continue trying to socialize Beijing into mainstream practice on freedom of navigation and overflight, but likely not meet progress because of its ingrained prejudices conditioned by history and contemporary world view.
Emphasizing international rules and norms is necessary of course, but not the panacea. Things evolve much faster at the tactical and operational levels, and that’s where the real dangers reside. It’s time for regional governments to talk less and do more on operational CBMs. But what truly matters is at the national-level, where concerned governments seriously need to ensure they do not send the wrong signal, for political mileage, to their militaries (and coastguards, and populace at large for that matter) by encouraging impulsive, reckless actions on the ground that can have potentially dire strategic repercussions. They need to stress upon professional ethics amongst service personnel destined for deployment into harm’s way. By so doing, maybe we stand a higher chance of averting a repeat of the April 2001 tragedy.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Image: Chinese servicemen gesture from the deck of a naval vessel, during the closing ceremony of the Pakistan Navy’s Multinational Exercise AMAN-17, in the North Arabian Sea, Pakistan, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro