Pentagon: ‘Unsafe’ intercept over South China Sea

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140819-N-ZZ999-113 WASHINGTON (Aug. 19, 2014) An armed Chinese fighter jet flies near a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft over the South China Sea about 135 miles east of Hainan Island in international airspace. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

At least two Chinese J-11 tactical aircraft carried out an “unsafe” intercept of a United States EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft that was conducting a routine mission in international airspace over the South China Sea, a U.S. defense official told CNN Wednesday.

The Chinese jets came within 50 feet of the American aircraft at one point, the official said.

The incident took place on Tuesday.

“We have made progress reducing risk between our operational forces and those of the People’s Republic of China by improved dialogue at multiple levels under the bilateral Confidence Building Measures and the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement,” Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

“Over the past year, we have seen improvements in PRC actions, flying in a safe and professional manner,” he said. “We are addressing the issue through the appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”

A separate defense official told CNN this type of incident is not something the U.S. military frequently sees in that region with Chinese aircraft. Incidents with Russian aircraft in the Black Sea that have been well documented over the past year are much more common.

This is an incident that “definitely has people’s attention” at the Pentagon, the second official said.

“This is potentially part of a disturbing trend line as the Chinese try to push their military envelope into greater parts of the sea surrounding their mainland,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

Murphy said that it is important that the U.S. does not overreact to these types of occurrences, which have recently involved Chinese and Russian militaries.

“What the Chinese and the Russians are trying to do is to provoke us into some kind of action that will feed into their domestic narratives, both in China and in Russia,” Murphy said.

By Jamie Crawford National Security Producer