A pair of Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. military aircraft that was conducting a reconnaissance flight over the South China Sea on Tuesday, May 17, the Defense Department said.

DoD spokesperson Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza revealed on Wednesday, May 18 that a U.S. EP-3E Aries was carrying out a routine mission in international airspace when it was suddenly approached by two Chinese J-11s. The Chinese fighter jets came dangerously close to the American aircraft that the Aries was forced to descend in order to avoid colliding with the other planes.

The Pentagon described the actions of the Chinese fighter pilots as an "unsafe" interception. In 2001, a similar incident occurred where a U.S. EP-3 plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The mid-air collision killed the Chinese pilot and forced the American aircraft to land in China.

However, Baldanza said the Defense Department has seen some improvements in the actions of the Chinese military over the past year, with their pilots now flying in a "safe and professional manner."

The U.S. Pacific Command is now conducting investigations regarding Tuesday's incident. The military was able to take photographs of the intercept but they are classified.

The South China Sea has been the subject of contention between China and its Asian neighbors. One island in particular, known as Fiery Cross Reef, is being claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and China over the past few years. The squabble stems from each country's desire to secure large areas of the resource-rich region.

Earlier this month, an American destroyer was intercepted by the Chinese military after the ship sailed within 12 miles of Fiery Cross Reef.

For the most part, the United States has largely maintained its distance regarding the territorial disputes in the region. However, the Pentagon has made itself clear that the U.S. will not be deterred by China's militarization of the South China Sea.

"The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban said. "That is [as] true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe."

Photo: David B. Gleason | Flickr 

ⓒ 2021 TECHTIMES.com All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.