China’s military dramatically increased its harassment of U.S. aircraft in the Asia-Pacific region after the Biden administration’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal, a newly released Pentagon report indicates.
The yearly report on China’s military said that between the fall of 2021 and the fall of 2023, the United States tracked more than 180 instances of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) coercive and risky air intercepts against U.S. aircraft in the region, which amounted to “more in the past two years than in the previous decade.”
In addition, the PLA conducted around 100 instances of “coercive and risky operational behavior” against U.S. allies and partners, the report said.
Examples of coercive and risky operational behavior included using military-grade lasers, reckless maneuvers such as barrel rolls and acrobatics, rapid approaches, discharging chaff or flares in front of or in close proximity to aircraft, and other actions.
TENSIONS IN THE SKY! China Fighter Performs “Aggressive” Fly-By in Front of U.S. AircraftUS Indo-Pacific Command via Storyful
Dr. Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, called the increase “sharp” and “disturbing.” He said during a briefing on Tuesday:
Specifically, since the fall of 2021, we have seen more than 180 such incidents, more in the past two years than in the decade before that. That’s nearly 200 cases where PLA operators have performed reckless maneuvers or discharged chaff or shot off flares or approached too rapidly or too close to U.S. aircraft, all as part of trying to interfere with the ability of U.S. forces to operate safely in places where we and every country in the world have every right to be, under international law. And when you take into account cases of coercive and risky PLA intercepts against other states, the number increases to nearly 300 cases against U.S., allied and partner aircraft over the last two years.
The report said China was trying to pressure the U.S. and other nations to reduce or stop operating in areas Beijing claims as its territory.
The increased harassment began right after or around the time of the Biden administration’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, which occurred in August 2021. That withdrawal saw the Taliban sweep into Kabul and topple the U.S.-backed government even before the withdrawal was completed — prompting chaos, violence, and the death of 13 American service members.
The report said that before the fall of 2021, the PLA routinely intercepted foreign air and maritime assets operating in the Indo-Pacific, but “these earlier interactions rarely involved PLA employment of coercive and risky behavior.”
Navy Adm. John C. Aquilino, commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), who briefed alongside Ratner, said:
What we’ve seen since  is a set of actions that have brought airplanes much closer together than are comfortable for those in the cockpit. In other words, flying off my wing at 15 feet for 45 minutes has too much of a chance to lead to an accident.
The Pentagon report said China has claimed it is “justified to take forceful countermeasures” against activities that Beijing labels “provocative,” suggesting central coordination of the behavior and not “a few isolated PLA officers.”
The report detailed some of the behavior towards U.S. aircraft, such as a PLA J-11 fighter coming within 20 feet of the nose of a U.S. military aircraft over the South China Sea in December 2022 and a PLA J-16 “thumping” a U.S. RC-135 aircraft by forcing it to fly directly behind it in its wake turbulence in May 2023.
WATCH: Chinese Aircraft Performs “Unsafe Maneuver”
U.S. Department of Defense / POLITICALLY+ / TMX
Ratner said China’s behavior has come at a time when the PLA has declined Department of Defense invitations to open lines of communication at the senior-most levels:
As Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin has said on numerous occasions, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] can and must end this behavior, full stop. For our part, the department will continue to raise awareness about the dangers of the PLA’s coercive and risky operational behavior.
We will also continue to seek open lines of military-to-military communication with the PLA at multiple levels, including the senior-most level because we believe these channels are crucial for preventing competition from inadvertently veering into conflict.
Finally, the United States will not be deterred or coerced. We will continue to fly, sail, and operate safely and responsibly wherever international law allows. Our forces have helped sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades, and we will continue to do so every day.
When asked if they were concerned about the United States’ ability to equip allies and partners in the region, given the need to also equip Ukraine and now Israel, both Ratner and Aquilino expressed confidence.
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“The United States is a global power, and that means we can deliver effects and execute our deterrence responsibilities across the globe, but I don’t think any other nation can do that at this time, but the United States can,” Aquilino said.
Ratner said the U.S. has been taking a number of steps to “strengthen our commitment to the region and strengthen our deterrent to the region, and will — and we will continue to do that.”