The Pentagon warned Tuesday that China has dramatically increased the number of harassing encounters with the U.S. military in the Pacific, with more than 180 incidents in just the past two years.
Officials unveiled declassified videos and images of 15 incidents the Pentagon deemed "coercive and risky" in a public briefing to reporters and said they provide evidence of a growing strategy by the Chinese military aimed at intimidating other countries and expanding influence over the region.
"We have seen more than 180 such incidents -- more in the past two years than in the decade before that," said Dr. Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, who spoke to the press alongside Adm. John Aquilino, the head of Indo-Pacific Command.
The released images show China's fighter jets performing reckless maneuvers, sometimes within just feet of U.S. aircraft. In the released photos, the jets are close enough for military photographers to make out the blue helmets of the Chinese crew members.
Ratner said the incidents depict the Chinese military's "sharp increase in coercive and risky operational behavior in the East and South China Seas," and that the Pentagon sees the incidents as efforts "to intimidate and coerce members of the international community into giving up their rights under international law."
The U.S. military has occasionally released videos and images of what it deems unsafe or unprofessional interactions with Chinese or Russian forces on a case-by-case basis.
However, Ratner and Aquilino said the declassification of the encounters with China's military Tuesday was aimed squarely at drawing attention to a trend that both U.S. and allied service members have encountered over the last several years.
Ratner said the number of encounters increases to nearly 300 when U.S. ally and partner aircraft are considered.
"The bottom line is that in many cases this type of operational behavior can cause accidents, and dangerous accidents can lead to inadvertent conflict," he said.
The news comes ahead of the Pentagon's submission of its annual and congressionally mandated "China Military Power Report" to Capitol Hill. Aquilino said that report will also call the incidents part of the strategy by the Chinese military.
In brief narratives of the 15 incidents that the Pentagon released, the military says that Chinese planes approached U.S. planes in the East and South China Seas -- sometimes as close as 10 or 15 feet -- and often conducted reckless maneuvers, such as flying in front of the plane's nose or in between two planes.
In one incident, a Chinese pilot responded to American aviators "using explicit language, including an expletive."
The incidents span from January 2022 to last month.
In an August incident, a Chinese pilot "conducted a barrel roll around and below the U.S. aircraft, causing the U.S. pilot to perform defensive procedures to prevent a collision," the press release said. In an earlier July incident, the Chinese plane harassed a U.S. plane "by deploying eight flares at a distance of 900 feet."
Aquilino told reporters that one of his chief concerns is the safety of U.S. service members.
"Intercepts happen every day around the world," the admiral said. "The vast majority are conducted safely and without incident, and there's no reason for the intercepts with the [Chinese military] in the Indo-Pacific region to be any different."
Both officials also noted that the unsafe incidents aren't just contained to the air and that unsafe interactions occur at sea and on land as well.
U.S. efforts to confront the behavior on the world stage have largely been rebuffed by China.
During an 18-nation East Asia summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, in August, Vice President Kamala Harris said that "freedom of navigation and overflight must be respected in the East China Sea and South China Sea."
In response, China's Foreign Ministry called the "accusations ... groundless and inconsistent with fact" in a September statement released by its embassy in the U.S.
It claimed that China and Southeast Asian countries "are making active efforts" to develop "a code of conduct in the South China Sea."
"Countries outside the region need to respect the efforts made by regional countries to develop rules and uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea," the ministry said in the statement.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.