Blinken, speaking during a visit to Sweden, said the “dangerous” incident “only underscores why it is so important that we have regular, open lines of communication, including by the way between our defense ministers,” making reference to a Wall Street Journal report that China had rebuffed a request from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with his Chinese counterpart during a security summit in Singapore.
China has criticized the United States for its depiction of the incident.
“The most dangerous thing is not to communicate and, as a result, to have a misunderstanding and miscommunication,” Blinken said. “While we have a real competition with China, we also want to make sure that doesn’t veer into … conflict.”
The RC-135, which is used to gather radio communications and other electronic intelligence, was flying in international airspace, officials with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement released in tandem with the video. The United States, they said, will continue to fly, sail and operate safely “wherever international law allows.”
“We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region,” the U.S. statement said, “to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law.”
China responded with accusations that the United States has endangered its national security sovereignty by conducting regular close-up reconnaissance using ships and planes. “Such provocative and dangerous actions are the root cause of security issues at sea,” Mao Ning, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said during a news briefing.
The intercept, at least the second such incident since late last year, occurred as relations between China and the United States remained fraught. Both countries are vying for additional partners in the region amid tensions over Taiwan, and China’s other regional ambitions have raised alarm in Washington and among U.S. allies in the Pacific.
Just days before this most recent midair encounter, the United States and Papua New Guinea signed a new defense cooperation agreement that will bring the two nations closer and allow their militaries to train together. A separate agreement was signed last year between China and the Solomon Islands, raising speculation that China may seek to build a military base there.
Tensions between the two powers spiked earlier this year after U.S. officials’ discovery of a Chinese surveillance airship over the United States. The balloon entered American airspace over Alaska and flew for days across the country, including near sensitive military sites, before being shot down by a U.S. fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina.
U.S. intelligence officials have assessed that the airship was part of a vast surveillance program run by the Chinese military. After the airship appeared over the United States, Blinken canceled a highly anticipated visit to Beijing, and Chinese officials rebuffed requests for Austin to speak with senior Chinese officials. Chinese officials said the airship was a weather balloon blown off-course, but the Biden administration has rejected that explanation.
In the months since, Blinken had indicated that he had hoped to reschedule his visit to Beijing, telling The Washington Post earlier in May that “there’s a clear demand signal from around the world that we manage this relationship responsibly.”
“If there are areas where we can actually cooperate, because it’s in the interest of our people, Chinese people and people around the world, so much the better,” he said then, “but at the very least we need to have a floor under this relationship. We need to have some guardrails on it.”
Ryan reported from Lulea, Sweden. Christian Shepherd in Taipei contributed to this report.