China’s J-11 Flanker-L ‘Softens’ US Air Force; US Resumes ‘Mil-To-Mil’ Contact With PLA To Deflate Tensions

The US Navy has welcomed the resumption of military coordination with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), its new top naval officer has announced. The ‘military-to-military’ (mil-to-mil) contacts, as they are known, come in the backdrop of increased encounters of its aircraft with Chinese fighter planes, which both sides were worried would veer into a war. 

The military dialogue was cut off following former US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. The mil-to-mil ties were restored following the November 16 meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in San Francisco. 

Admiral Lisa Franchetti, the USN’s Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), told journalists during a visit to Busan that it was vital to maintain open lines of communication between the two militaries to avoid “misunderstandings and miscalculations” that could lead to conflict.

“I’m very excited, and I welcome that announcement. These agreements were reached recently, and we know we have to work with the PRC military to solidify the next steps,” Franchetti quoted in a Reuters report.

A series of interceptions by People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) fighters of US surveillance and bomber aircraft since the beginning of this year had raised the strategic rivalry’s core military element to unprecedented levels. Following are some of the instances this year:


A Chinese J-11 fighter beside a US aircraft in June 2022. Source: Department of Defense/Associated Press

Chinese Interception Of US Planes 

  1. January 11, 2023: A Chinese jet flew alongside a US plane just 30 feet away over the South China Sea.
  2. February 7, 2023: A PLA plane came within 20 feet of its US counterpart, also over the South China Sea.
  3. February 15, 2023: A Chinese jet shadowed a US plane about 70 feet away over the same body of water. 
  4. February 24, 2023: A People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-11, armed with air-to-air missiles, intercepted a US Navy P-8A, coming as close as 500 feet. 
  5. March 2, 2023: A Chinese pilot intercepted a US plane over the East China Sea, coming within 50 feet. 
  6. May 27, 2023: A J-16 fighter flew in front of the nose of a US RC-135 Rivet Electronic Warfare (EW) aircraft, making it fly through its rocky wake and causing turbulence. A video from inside the RC-135 captured the act. 
  7. July 12, 2023: A J-11 fighter conducted a “coercive and risky intercept” against a US asset in the ECS by deploying eight flares 900 feet from the US plane.
  8. September 21, 2023: A J-11, armed with air-to-air missiles, conducted a “coercive and risky intercept” against a US asset in the SCS, including by approaching a distance of just 50 feet from the US plane.
  9. October 16, 2023: A Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft was intercepted by a PLAAF J-10 jet off the coast of China in an “unsafe and unprofessional manner.” A Su-30MKK was also accompanying the J-10, seen in the video shot from inside the CP-140 Aurora.
  10. October 26, 2023: A Chinese Shenyang J-11 came within 10 feet of a US B-52 bomber. The Indo-Pacific Command said the J-11 closed in on the US bomber at an “uncontrollable speed, flying below, in front of, and within 10 feet of the B-52, putting both aircraft in danger of collision.”
  11. October 29, 2023: A Chinese J-11 fighter came as close as 100 feet from a Canadian Sikorsky CH-48 Cyclone and fired flares.  

On October 17, the Pentagon also declassified videos and photos of 15 “coercive and risky” maneuvers of US aircraft in the Indo-Pacific region. Since late 2021, the Pentagon has counted 180 such instances.

Lisa Marie Franchetti, a US Navy Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations, directly claimed that these incidents the US fears may trigger a war with China. 

Franchetti commented on the backdrop of these instances in the Reuters report: “The US and some regional militaries have complained about near misses and unsafe interactions with Chinese aircraft and ships in the disputed South China Sea and across East Asia, leading to fears that tensions could spiral into conflict. We expect all navies in international waters to uphold the rules and norms of proper military behavior on, under, and above the sea,” she said.

Rivalry To Continue With China

However, the arrangement with the PLA does not imply a thawing of ties and a reduction of tensions since it is only a military mechanism to prevent inadvertent escalation. The broader geopolitical, strategic, technological, and economic would continue and would instead only intensify over the next decade. 

This is evident from the venue where Franchetti made the statement. Franchetti was visiting Busan in South Korea amidst Seoul’s increasing dalliance with the US and Japan camps in a series of military exercises in Northeast Asia aimed at the China-Russia-North Korea grouping. 

The optics behind the statement from the location close to China welcoming the ‘military-to-military contacts’ cannot be denied either. Coming from the top naval officer, they convey to Beijing that Washington does not intend to fight a war that would harm the region and the economy. However, it will continue to pursue its geopolitical goals and interests.    

Moreover, it is the US military and navy that best knows the horrific outcomes of an ‘away’ war against a well-prepared China, something its leaders have been warning for years.

EurAsian Times has touched upon the US military’s logistical, technological, and doctrinal shortcomings for a full-scale conventional war against China in the western Pacific. This also might be why “US officials had been eager to develop,” the contacts, as Reuters reported. 

Image for Representation

War Will Affect China Too

Indeed, China welcomes the development. It realizes a war in the region might irreversibly set back many of its long-term geo-economic goals, influencing many of its calculations on Taiwan. 

Moreover, China’s economy is facing a historic challenge where its growth, fueled only by industrial exports and international demand, has stagnated. Landing Beijing in a ‘middle-income trap,’ it attempts to reinvest a lot of that trade surplus to generate demand from its overworked and underpaid middle class. 

The middle class accounts for a large proportion of the population but little participation in domestic consumption. By implementing a ‘dual-circulation’ economic policy, the Communist Party of China (CPC) hopes to trigger a new growth cycle. A war will upset those plans and widen emerging social fissures owing to economic hardship — a dynamic the CPC may not be able to control.  

Put differently, China, too, was hoping to secure a military tension reduction agreement from the Xi-Biden meeting. Both sides knew the other desired it as much and were relieved it was achieved. 

Doesn’t Mean Beijing Is Softening Stance

From Beijing’s end, it does not imply any softening of its position on Taiwan or asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea, East China Sea, or the Straits. It will keep sending military aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), continue modernizing its military, and intercept US Allied aircraft and ships over the South China Sea (SCS), East China Sea (ECS), and the Taiwan Straits. 

The US would meanwhile continue arming Taiwan, engaging the Taiwanese government, enhancing defense technological ties with Japan, and conducting exercises in far Northeast Asia. 

Between the two Biden and Xi meetings this month — the meeting on November 16 and the Asia Pacific Economic Partnership (APEC) on November 22 — the US announced deploying SM-6 missiles to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and conducted joint air and maritime patrols in the SCS with the Philippines. Thus, the US-China great power contest will only escalate short of war.