China curtails ‘dangerous’ fighter jet manoeuvres after Xi-Biden summit

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China has cut back on “dangerous” fighter jet intercepts against US aircraft since last month’s summit meeting between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, according to the top US military commander in the Indo-Pacific region.

The apparent drop-off in the manoeuvres followed an agreement last month between the US and Chinese leaders in San Francisco to restore military relations. Beijing had cut off formal communication channels between the militaries in August 2022 in response to a visit by the then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. 

Last month, the Pentagon said the Chinese jets undertook 180 “risky and coercive” manoeuvres against US aircraft and 100 against planes flown by Washington’s allies and partners over the past two years, which it said raised the chance of an aerial accident.

“Since the summit, those seem to have stopped. That would be an incredibly positive outcome if that were to continue,” Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo on Monday. 

Intercepts are the military description for when an aircraft comes close to a plane from another country’s military, usually as part of a shadowing action, especially when the intercepted plane is near another country’s airspace.

China has previously accused the US of spying with surveillance aircraft, while Washington has stressed it has flown legally in international airspace. 

Aquilino said Beijing’s behaviour had not changed in other respects and criticised China’s military for using water cannons and ramming Philippine supply vessels near the Second Thomas Shoal, a sandbank in the South China Sea that is also claimed by China. 

“This is about deeds, not about actions,” Aquilino said. “I just see no change to the behaviour against the Philippines.” 

The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Aquilino’s remarks.

Separately, Taiwan’s defence ministry reported on Monday that two Chinese balloons had crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait on Sunday and six Chinese aircraft and two navy vessels entered the area around Taiwan.

The US has been trying to arrange a meeting between Aquilino and his Chinese counterparts for almost three years. Aquilino said there had been no positive response from Beijing, but he was “hopeful that they will respond shortly and we can have a conversation”.  

Expectations for a meeting have risen after Michael Chase, the top US defence official for China policy, met Major General Liu Zhan, Beijing’s defence attaché in Washington, ahead of the Xi-Biden summit, according to people familiar with the meeting.

The people familiar with the situation said the US and China were negotiating a series of senior-level military engagements for 2024 after the Pentagon submitted an initial proposal to Beijing.

But they cautioned that those arrangements would take time, partly for bureaucratic reasons. The situation has been additionally complicated by the fact that Beijing has not replaced former defence minister Li Shangfu, who was formally removed from his post in October.

Additional reporting by Wenjie Ding in Beijing

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