The US-China summit’s big achievement: ‘Rules’ in the sky?

(From the National Interest)

By Bonnie S. Glaser

Media reporting from the third summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping was dominated by cybercrime and news of cooperation on greenhouse gases. But observers interested in U.S.-China relations and Asian security matters should also pay attention to a little-noticed accord signed by the U.S. and Chinese militaries on “Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air-to-Air Encounters.”

The agreement is an annex to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on rules of behavior for safe military encounters at sea and in the air that was signed at the prior Obama-Xi summit in November 2014. The now completed MOU underscores the commitment by the U.S. and China to reduce the risk of unintended military incidents that could harm the overall relationship.

Reaching agreement on best practices to ensure safe navigation when American and Chinese military assets come into close proximity is a milestone. This landmark achievement was made possible in large part by Xi Jinping’s recognition of the increased danger of U.S.-Chinese military accidents and the damage they could do to bilateral ties. The Chinese armed forces also deserve credit for realizing the need for the PLA to have a common understanding of operational safety with the international community.

The recently inked Annex of the Rules of Behavior for Air-to-Air Encounters establishes procedures to prevent collisions between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft such as occurred in 2001 between a Chinese fighter and U.S. surveillance plane. Unsafe intercepts have continued, though they have decreased in frequency over the past year, with the most recent incident occurring on September 15 when a Chinese fighter came within 500 feet of an American reconnaissance plane. In 2014 there were at least five incidents. The most serious near miss involved a Chinese fighter that came within 30 feet of a US P-8 Navy surveillance aircraft. A Pentagon spokesman described the Chinese warplane’s actions as “very, very close, very dangerous.” The Chinese fighter purportedly flew above, underneath, and alongside the U.S. surveillance craft, and at one point performed a barrel roll to display its weapons.

The norms of behavior set out in the Air-to-Air Encounters annex are consistent with the Convention on International Civil Aviation (which contains provisions guiding civilian flights and encounters between civilian and military planes), and the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES; which contains guidelines for encounters of naval aircraft). The agreement breaks new ground in establishing rules of engagement between military aircraft of different countries. Read more

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