The Pentagon has launched a diplomatic protest with Beijing after a Chinese fighter pilot flew perilously close to a Navy patrol plane, at one point performing a barrel roll over the top of it.
The incident took place in international airspace 135 miles (215km) east of Hainan Island, the site of a Chinese submarine base, on Tuesday - with the Su-27 fighter jet making several passes at the P-8 Poseidon plane.
At one point the two craft flew wingtip-to-wingtip, with the jet passing over and under the larger plane and in front of its nose in what the US claims was the pilot “making a point” of showing its weapons load.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, press secretary to the US Department of Defense, labelled it a “dangerous intercept”, and lodged the complaint on Friday.
He said: “This kind of behaviour not only is unprofessional, it's unsafe and it is certainly not in keeping with the kind of military-to-military ... relations that we'd like to have with China.“
The Obama administration also condemned the incident, with Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes calling it a ”deeply concerning provocation”.
He said: “What we've encouraged is constructive military-to-military ties with China and this type of action ... clearly violates the spirit of that engagement, and we've made our concerns known directly to Beijing.”
A similar incident in April 2001 saw a Chinese F-8 fighter pilot killed in collision with a US spy plane after making an aggressive intercept in the same area.
The American pilot was forced to make an emergency landing at a base on Hainan where the plane’s 24 crew members were held for 11 days until Washington apologised for the incident.
Last year China imposed an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea which requires aircraft entering the region to identify themselves and report flight plans to Chinese authorities.
Washington has criticised the move and the US military has ignored the requirements. Japan and South Korea have also rejected the zone.
Additional reporting by Reuters