WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China raised the thorny subject of U.S. military spy flights during talks that led to agreements this week on reducing friction between the two militaries, but was told U.S. missions in international airspace and waters would continue, the Pentagon said.
The closed-door conversations underscore China’s sensitivity to surveillance by U.S. P-8 Poseidon spy planes and other aircraft, especially off Hainan Island, home to a major Chinese submarine base. A Chinese intercept of a P-8 plane in international airspace off Hainan in August was described as dangerous by Washington.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced the military agreements on Wednesday after meeting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing.
They require each country to notify the other of major military activities, including exercises, as well as cover rules of behavior for air and maritime encounters. Guidelines on encounters between naval surface vessels had been drawn up, the White House said, adding similar guidelines governing air-to-air encounters would be formulated.
At one point during the discussions, Chinese officials had raised the matter of U.S. military spy flights that, in Beijing’s view, have come too close to Hainan, said Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool, a Pentagon spokesman.
“China did raise the issue of restricting U.S. operations in international airspace and both sides discussed their positions,” Pool told Reuters.
“We have consistently opposed any Chinese proposals that would limit U.S. operations in the air or sea beyond the territorial limits of coastal states, place U.S. alliances at risk (or) constrain activities with U.S. allies or partners.”
The Chinese Defence Ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters on this issue.
However, the ministry said in a statement that the military agreements were the result of more than 10 rounds of “deep consultations” and an important step in increasing understanding of each other’s strategic intentions.
“China is willing to work with the United States and take this opportunity to continue deepening military exchanges, trust, cooperation and the appropriate handling of differences,” it said.
China sees the airspace around Hainan as part of its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, which, in its view, ought to be restricted. The U.S. military says it has the right to fly any kind of mission it chooses in international airspace, which begins 12 nautical miles from a country’s coastline.
The incident in August, when a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a P-8 Poseidon plane some 135 miles (215 km) east of Hainan, highlighted the risks as the two militaries rub up against each other in the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean.
The Chinese jet made several passes, crossing over and under it. At one point, it flew wingtip-to-wingtip and then performed a barrel roll over the top of the spy plane, U.S. officials have said. China has said the pilot kept a safe distance.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Dean Yates and Alex Richardson