Spy vs. Spy

Photograph by Andy Wong/AP

Earlier today, Susan Rice, President Obama’s national-security adviser, concluded her first visit to Beijing since she assumed office last July. Foremost on her packed agenda—which included discussion of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Iran’s nuclear program, and the Russian incursion into Ukraine—was the abstract promise to develop a “productive” and peaceful relationship with China ahead of Obama’s visit there in November.

A distressingly close encounter above the South China Sea three weeks ago complicated matters. On August 19th, a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon plane was cruising a hundred and thirty-five miles east of the Chinese island of Hainan when a Chinese fighter jet aggressively intercepted it, making several passes at close range and at one point flying perpendicularly to the P-8 in order to display the weapons payload on its underside. The encounter ended with the jet performing a roll over the Navy aircraft at a distance of forty-five feet. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, called the incident “very unprofessional” and “very dangerous.” Yang Yujun, Kirby’s counterpart at the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, dismissed the characterization as “spurious” and “completely groundless”—and the Americans as, in effect, shameless hypocrites.

U.S. officials referred to the Poseidon’s flight as a routine patrol over “international waters,” in “international airspace.” The Chinese regarded it as a spy mission. At least three similarly inflammatory incidents have occurred this year in the same region, and it is widely known that China is in the process of fielding a new fleet of ballistic-missile submarines, which it hopes will serve as a deterrent. If the United States were able to track the movement of these submarines—as the Poseidon is equipped to do—the secrecy..

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