(Source: The Straits Times)

China fighter jets fly near US spy plane; The aircraft come within 75 m of each other in airspace off China

WASHINGTON - Two Chinese jet fighters came dangerously close to an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft last week during a mid-air encounter reminiscent of the April 2001 aerial collision that touched off a United States-China crisis.

Two F-7 jets tracked the EP-3 as it flew in international airspace off the northern coast of China, The Washington Times quoted US intelligence officials as saying.

One official said they came within 75 m of each other.

The encounter was close, said some officials, but less threatening than Chinese aerial engagements in the past, which have come within a few metres of US reconnaissance aircraft.

On April 1 last year, a Chinese F-8 jet collided with a US EP-3 over the South China Sea, causing the Chinese jet to crash and nearly causing the deaths of 23 Americans on the EP-3.

The US plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese air base, where the US personnel were held prisoner for 11 days before being released.

Both sides accused the other of causing the aerial crash. Angered by China's handling of the incident, the US administration called a virtual halt to military exchanges.

US intelligence agencies have increased electronic intelligence gathering from China in order to pick up new information on recent Communist Party leadership changes, The Washington Times report said.

The aerial intercept also coincided with renewed Chinese fighter sorties near Taiwan.

For the first time in months, Chinese military forces began flying new SU-30 fighter bombers close to the demarcation line that runs down the centre of the Taiwan Strait.

Meanwhile, an upcoming visit by a US Navy destroyer to China is the firmest sign yet of a thaw in military contacts between Beijing and Washington.

The USS Paul F. Foster's planned arrival today will mark the first port call in China by a US navy ship since ties were frozen in April last year.

The ship and its 340 crew will be greeted at the eastern port of Qingdao with a formal welcoming ceremony. Other events have not been announced.

Next month, the US will host nearly two dozen Chinese generals, and the admiral who commands all US forces in the Pacific will visit China.

Senior-level defence talks, not held since 2000, will resume on Dec 9 in Washington.

The Chinese F-7 fighter is a domestic variant of the Soviet Union's MiG-21 (photo: www.fas.org).