Two Chinese fighter jets conducted an “unprofessional” intercept of a US Air Force plane, US officials said, with one flying upside down directly above the aircraft in a manoeuvre similar to the one performed in the Hollywood movie Top Gun.
The two Chinese Su-30 jets came within 150 feet of the US radiation detection plane during the confrontation over the Yellow Sea, CNN and other US media outlets reported. The Yellow Sea is between China’s east coast and the Korean Peninsula.
“The issue is being addressed with China through appropriate diplomatic and military channels,” said Air Force spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Lori Hodge.
Lieutenant Colonel Hodge said the US characterisation of the incident was based on initial reports from the US aircrew aboard the WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft “due to the manoeuvres by the Chinese pilot, as well as the speeds and proximity of both aircraft.”
“Distances always have a bearing on how we characterise interactions,” she said, adding a US military investigation into the intercept was underway.
She said the WC-135, a four-engine jet which monitors for elements that a nuclear test would emit into the air, was carrying out a routine mission at the time and was operating in accordance with international law.
The US Air Force operates two WC-135 jets from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska that regularly fly to north-east Asia, CNN reported.
Donald Trump’s administration has been ratcheting up pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea to give up its military ambitions.
The rogue nation has carried out five nuclear tests, including two last year.
The incident between the US aircraft and two Chinese planes on Wednesday is the second this year.
A Chinese surveillance plane and a US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft experienced what US officials called an “unsafe” close encounter over the South China Sea in February.
Last year, Beijing rejected accusations from the US that its fighter jets carried out another unsafe manoeuvre over the sea.
Washington also raised concerns over China’s military in 2014 when it claimed a Chinese plane made a “dangerous” pass near a US aircraft – performing a barrel roll, apparently to display its weapons.
In 2001 a Chinese jet collided with a US Navy surveillance aircraft off Hainan Island, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the Navy plane to make an emergency landing on the island.
Washington severed military relations with China after that episode. Officials in Beijing regularly call on the US to cut down the amount of patrols it carries out near China.