China dismisses as 'groundless' U.S. protest over airborne encounter

China acknowledges encounter between U.S. and Chinese warplanes, but denies its pilot was aggressive

China’s Defense Ministry on Saturday acknowledged an encounter between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy aircraft in recent days but rejected as “totally groundless” Pentagon assertions that the Chinese pilot conducted an aggressive midair intercept of the American plane.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday that the Chinese fighter made three passes dangerously close to the U.S. submarine-hunting P-8 Poseidon on Aug. 19 about 135 miles east of Hainan island in the South China Sea.

U.S. officials said the Poseidon was on routine patrol above international waters. At one point, Kirby said, the Chinese jet flew within 30 feet of the U.S. plane and later did a barrel roll over the top of it.

Beijing acknowledged that Chinese and U.S. aircraft did encounter each other about 135 miles east of Hainan but Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun dismissed the Pentagon’s version of events.

Yang said that a U.S. anti-submarine plane and another American patrol aircraft were conducting “close-in surveillance” and a Chinese fighter jet took off to make “regular identification and verification,” the state-run New China News Agency reported. The Chinese pilot, “with professional operation,” kept the jet a safe distance from the U.S. aircraft, Yang said.

He urged the U.S. military to stop such activities. “Massive and frequent close-in surveillance” of China endangers air and marine security of both countries and “is the root of accidents,” Yang was quoted as saying.

The Obama administration lodged a protest with China through official diplomatic channels, but beyond Yang’s statement it was unclear what kind of response, if any, had been received.

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