Last Friday we learned that a Chinese fighter pilot had earlier in the week engaged in some Top Gun-style antics with a US surveillance aircraft (see photo):

An armed Chinese fighter jet aggressively confronted a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft earlier this week over international waters in the South China Sea, mounting a series of “unprofessional and unsafe” maneuvers that included passing within 20 feet of the Navy aircraft’s wingtips, a Pentagon official said...

...The Navy P-8 was on a routine mission gathering intelligence in international airspace over the contested South China Sea, about 135 miles east of Hainan Island, China’s southernmost point. The incident occurred several days after Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, made a historic visit to nearby Vietnam.

On three separate passes, the Chinese J-11B flew directly under and alongside the Navy aircraft, at one point bringing its wingtips within about 20 feet of the P-8’s wings before conducting a roll over the top of the U.S. aircraft. The Chinese fighter jet also passed the nose of the P-8 at a 90-degree angle, showing its belly loaded with weaponry to the U.S. Navy pilot, Kirby said.

China has been unrepentant in response to US claims of unsafe pilot conduct, and it looks like the US is trying to de-escalate the situation, with un-named US officials telling the Wall Street Journal that 'the midair encounters may be attributable to a "rogue" pilot or group of pilots in a squadron responsible for intercepts in the South China Sea. These officials also said they don't believe the aggressive flying was directly authorized by the Chinese military.'

In other words, the US is signaling that recent efforts to improve military-to-military relations aren't jeopardised by this single incident.

Clearly the US and China need to improve their mutual understanding of how these intercepts ought to be managed. When there are clear rules and procedures in place, there is less room for rogues on either side to make snap judgments that could be misinterpreted by the other. The problem will only become more acute as China develops its capabilities to fly missions close to US Pacific territories and even the continental US. Not that improving these 'rules of the road' is any guarantee of safety. The US and Soviet Union (then Russia) have decades of experience with these aerial encounters, yet in April a Russian fighter performed almost exactly the same dangerous manoeuvre with a US spy plane.

Speaking of 'rules of the road', the WSJ article points out that:

The U.S. maintains all vessels have a right to freedom of navigation outside another country's territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the coast under international law. China has at times said that freedom doesn't apply to military surveillance and mapping and has bristled at the presence of U.S. military aircraft and ships coming so close to its shores.

It's true that China has made this distinction, but in June last year it also undercut its own case by admitting that it had conducted incursions into America's exclusive economic zone.

That said, the balance of maritime surveillance and espionage capability massively favours the US at present. China does not even have a long-range maritime patrol aircraft in its inventory or any bases close to US soil from which to operate them. The US, by contrast, has bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii, and is rebuilding its fleet with the new P-8 Poseidon and the MQ-4C Triton drone. Its ally Japan also has a huge fleet of maritime surveillance aircraft.

If China does develop the capability to conduct regular surveillance missions off US Pacific territories or even the mainland, the US reaction to such flights will be a symbolic indicator of America's willingness to cede China the rights and privileges of a great power.  China's conduct in this case may well have been provocative and dangerous, but these surveillance flights do take on a different resonance when they  are happening in your own backyard.

Finally, it's worth pausing to think about how technology may change this high-stakes game: as I mentioned, the US is in the process of introducing drones to conduct some of this surveillance work. So what would last week's incident have looked like if the US aircraft had not been carrying a crew? On the one hand, with no lives in danger it would have lowered the stakes for the US. On the other, would the lack of risk to the crew also make US military commanders more willing to take risks with flights close to China's shores?