MELBOURNE, Australia — The U.S. Pacific Command detailed what it called an "unsafe" close encounter between a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft and a Chinese aircraft Wednesday.

The two planes reportedly flew within 1,000 feet of each other in the general vicinity of the contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Maj. Rob Shulford, a spokesman for PACOM, told Defense News that "on Feb. 8 (local), an interaction characterized by U.S. Pacific Command as 'unsafe' occurred in international airspace above the South China Sea between a Chinese KJ-200 aircraft and a U.S. Navy P-3C aircraft."

He also said that "the U.S. Navy P-3C was on a routine mission operating in accordance with international law," adding that the "Department of Defense and U.S. Pacific Command are always concerned about unsafe interactions with Chinese military forces."

There have been no other details about the relative flight paths of both aircraft at the time of the encounter, which has been described as "inadvertent," although other reports said that the American P-3 had to alter course to avoid an aerial collision.

A PLAAF Shaanxi KJ-200 AEW aircraft.

Photo Credit: Allen Zhao via Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese aircraft involved has been identified as a Shaanxi KJ-200 Airborne Early Warning aircraft, which suggests this was unlikely to be an intercept of the P-3 by the Chinese.

The KJ-200 carries a phased array radar inside a long, rectangular housing mounted on struts on top of its fuselage. The aircraft is used by both the People's Liberation Army Air Force and the air arm of the People's Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, to provide air surveillance.

It is unclear to which branch of China's armed forces the aircraft involved in this latest encounter belongs, although PLAN KJ-200s have been known to operate from air bases on China's southern Hainan Island, 530 miles from Scarborough Shoal.

The aircraft are usually on temporary rotations to Hainan, being normally assigned to the PLAN's 2nd Air Division, 4th Regiment based at Laiyang in Shandong Province, northern China.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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