China dismisses US criticism of jet encounter as 'groundless'

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China dismissed US criticism of manoeuvres by one of its jets near a US Navy patrol plane off the Chinese coast as groundless and said its pilot had maintained a safe distance from the US aircraft.

The Defence Ministry statement came in response to a diplomatic complaint the Pentagon filed with Beijing on Friday when it said a Chinese jet had come within metres of the US plane.

"The US side's criticism of China is totally groundless," the Chinese statement said on Saturday.

The military forces of the two countries have been looking to forge closer ties, but these have been frequently tested as tensions between China and its neighbours, some of them US treaty allies, have heightened over competing territorial claims in the South China and East China seas.

The US complaint concerned an Aug 19 encounter about 215 km east of China's Hainan Island in which a Chinese fighter jet came within metres of the US aircraft performing acrobatic manoeuvres around it, the US side said.

The Chinese jet made several passes at a P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine and reconnaissance plane, Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

At one point, the jet flew wingtip-to-wingtip about nine metres from the Poseidon and performed a barrel roll over the top of it, he added.

China denied wrongdoing and said the United States was responsible.

"The US's large-scale and highly frequent close-in reconnaissance against China is the root cause of accidents endangering the sea and air military security between China and the United States."

In April 2001, an intercept of a US EP-3E spy plane by a Chinese F-8 fighter in the same area resulted in a collision that killed the Chinese pilot and forced the American plane to make an emergency landing at a base on Hainan.

The 24 US air crew members were held for 11 days until Washington apologised for the incident, which soured US-Chinese relations in the early days of President George W. Bush's first administration.