WASHINGTON (Kyodo) -- Two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea on Tuesday, forcing its pilot to change flight path to avoid a collision, U.S. media reported Wednesday.
The U.S. Defense Department condemned the flight, calling it an "unsafe" intercept, while saying the U.S. aircraft was carrying out "a routine U.S. patrol."
According to CNN, Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman said, "We are addressing the issue through the appropriate diplomatic and military channels."
The two Chinese J-11 jets flew out to intercept the U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft came as close as within roughly 50 feet of the U.S. plane, causing it to descend hundreds of feet to avert a collision, the Associated Press reported, adding the incident took place in the northern part of the sea, south of Hong Kong.
In Beijing, the Chinese Defense Ministry, commenting on the Pentagon statement, said the intercept was justified because U.S. aircraft was carrying out close-range surveillance on China.
China has been accused of militarizing the South China Sea, by building artificial islands, creating airstrips and installing radars on the contested Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Stars and Stripes, a news service for the U.S. military community, reported last month that China deployed 16 fighter jets to Woody Island, one of the disputed islands by mid-April, marking the largest deployment of military jets there thus far. But the link between the two Chinese jets that intercepted the U.S. military plane and those deployed on Woody Island is uncertain.
On May 12, top generals from China and the United States agreed in a video link-up that the two sides should exercise self-restraint.
In April 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 maritime patrol aircraft near China's Hainan Island, resulting in a death of the Chinese pilot and an unauthorized emergency landing of the U.S. plane in China.