We Nearly Got World War Three for Christmas
The new year promises to be fraught with international risk in a manner not seen since the height of the Cold War – but is the Western public paying attention?
The year that just ended focused the world on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Europe’s biggest and bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. The new year promises more of the same, with no end in sight for that terrible war. With both Kyiv and Moscow rejecting negotiations, while unable to produce strategic results on the battlefield, there’s no reason to doubt that the Ukraine War will drag on painfully for months, perhaps years to come, bringing with it the risk of escalation, even nuclear war.
But what if that’s not the biggest risk the West faces right now?
Four days before Christmas, an event transpired over the South China Sea which came within a half-second of birthing a global crisis that could easily result in war between nuclear great powers, yet hardly anybody noticed. The December 29 press release issued by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Honolulu didn’t mince words, yet the public, distracted by holiday merry-making, seemed to miss it. On its face, it appeared vaguely banal:
On Dec. 21 (China Standard Time), a People’s Liberation Army - Navy J-11 fighter pilot performed an unsafe maneuver during an intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft, which was lawfully conducting routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace. The PLAN pilot flew an unsafe maneuver by flying in front of and within 20 feet of the nose of the RC-135, forcing the RC-135 to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision.
INDOPACOM offered the standard warning to Beijing to quit playing such dangerous games:
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force is dedicated to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and will continue to fly, sail and operate at sea and in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law. We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law.
A look at the video which accompanied the Pentagon press release reveals that this was a very dangerous incident indeed. The PLAN jet, a J-11, is a Chinese variant of Russia’s Sukhoi Su-27 fourth-generation fighter, manufactured by the Shenyang firm. It’s a fast and maneuverable aircraft. However, its American counterpart here, the Boeing RC-135, is anything but fast and maneuverable.