WASHINGTON, May 18 (UPI) -- A pair of Chinese fighter jets buzzed a U.S. military reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea Tuesday, military officials said.
The two jets came flew within 50 feet of the U.S. plane, a Navy E-P3, in the latest tense encounter between the U.S. and China in the highly contested region.
The U.S. maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft was on a "routine patrol" in international airspace on May 17 when "two tactical aircraft from the People's Republic of China" intercepted the U.S. plane, said Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza.
"Initial reports characterized the incident as unsafe," Baldanza said in a statement. "Over the past year, DoD has seen improvements in PRC actions, flying in a safe and professional manner."
The incident is being investigated by U.S. Pacific Command.
China has steadily tried to control the region, including building a landing strip atoll in disputed waters.
However, the incident bucked a trend of the last year in which Chinese pilots have been much safer and less provocative in their encounters with the U.S. military. Tuesday actions seemed designed toward pushing U.S. planes farther from the disputed areas China has recently claimed.
In 2001, a similar buzzing by Chinese military resulted in mid-air collision that damaged a Navy P-3 and killed a Chinese pilot. The crew of 24 U.S. Navy aviators were held on Hainan island in China for 11 days.