On August 19 a United States P-8 Poseidon intelligence gathering aircraft was flying an electronic surveillance mission 135 miles (217 kilometers) east of China's Hainan Island when it was buzzed by a Chinese fighter plane. The P-8 was well within China's Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends, as do all EEZs, up to 200 nautical miles (230 miles or 370 kilometers) and there was no reason for its being there other than to spy on China. The Chinese sent up a J-11B fighter to have a look at the spy-plane and its pilot had a ball. He flew within nose-tweaking distance of the P-8 and performed some skilful tricks, including doing a barrel roll only a few feet above it, which aerobatic dexterity the White House called a "deeply concerning provocation." So let's think about provocation.
The Chinese fighter was 135 miles from China's south coast. The US spy plane was 7,500 miles from America's west coast. (Even Hawaii is 6,000 miles from Hainan.) But if the Chinese ever sent a spy plane to fly at that distance from California and it was detected picking up transmissions from, say, the Point Mugu weapons testing base 50 miles up the coast from Los Angeles, do we imagine that this might be described by Washington as a "deeply concerning provocation"? Of course it would - and rightly so.
And it was certainly a provocation when an American ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) plane conducted a spying operation targeting China's signals intelligence facility at the Lingshui military base on the south coast of Hainan. Understandably, China doesn't like being spied on and ordered up a fighter jock with orders to enjoy himself and scare the hell out of the P-3 crew, which he appears to have done most successfully.
There was a smidgen of mild criticism in some foreign media about the P-3 being on a spy mission so close to China but this was airily dismissed by the Pentagon which declared loftily that "military activities may be conducted within the Exclusive Economic Zone of another nation as an exercise of the freedoms of navigation and overflight." So can we take it that if ever the offshore sky of the United States is speckled with Chinese and Russian electronic intelligence aircraft on missions within 135 miles of its shoreline, then there will be no complaints from Washington? In a pig's valise, buddy.
Nowhere in Part V of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defining countries' responsibilities concerning Exclusive Economic Zones is there mention of the word "military". And "overflight" appears but once, in that there should be "freedom of overflight" - with the caveat that "the high seas [and inferentially the air above them] shall be reserved for peaceful purposes." But the delicious irony-the absolute hooting joke-is that the US Senate refuses to ratify the Convention. But maybe they didn't tell the Pentagon, whose spokesman, Rear Admiral Kirby, declared the Chinese pilot's frolics in buzzing the P-8 to be "unprofessional" which I'm willing to bet got a big laugh from that pilot's US Navy counterparts because every one of them, without exception, would just love a chance to do a barrel roll 50 feet from a lumbering Poseidon-like airplane whose pilots are regarded with genial condescension by every fighter jock worthy of the name.
In a curiously parallel incident in the Baltic Sea, exactly a month before the Hainan fandango, another US electronic warfare airplane (they're all over the place) was spying on Russia which despatched a fighter to drive it away from its coast. A US official was reported as saying "the spy plane crew felt so concerned about the radar tracking that it wanted to get out of the area as quickly as possible" and the pilot requested overflight of Swedish territory. This was refused by the Swedish air traffic controller - but the US pilot paid no attention to the order to refrain from entering foreign airspace and flew over the Swedish island of Gotland, which has an airbase at Visby on the west coast and a radar station at Furillen on the other side.
This blatant violation of Sweden's sovereignty didn't attract too much criticism because Sweden has lurched away from the courageous neutrality it once embraced. It is now a member of NATO's 'Partnership for Peace', a zealous anti-Russian alliance that involves "virtually every field of NATO activity, including defense-related work, defense reform, defense policy and planning, civil-military relations, education and training, military-to-military cooperation and exercises." NATO's departing semi-psychotic secretary-general (the 'Supreme Allied Commander', who calls the shots, is always a US general), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declared in January that Sweden is "one of NATO's most active and effective partners, and we now have a real opportunity to make our partnership even stronger," while in Ukraine the NATO alliance is "planning more joint exercises, more cooperation, and long-term assistance to modernize the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian security sector."
So we all know exactly where we stand - and Russia realizes there isn't a hope of rapprochement with the US and NATO, given their attitude of rigid confrontation. The Second Cold War is upon us, and US-led NATO is spoiling for heat. But the sad joke about all this is that NATO couldn't fight its way out of a paper bag.
September's NATO conference in Britain was an absurd jamboree of posturing provocation at which, among other Russia-aimed baiting, it was decided to create "a rapid response force of several thousand troops to protect eastern European members against possible Russian aggression. The force, to be made up of troops provided by member states on a rotating basis, would be able to be deployed within 48 hours." And I roared with laughter, as, no doubt, did Mr Putin.
There isn't going to be any "Russian aggression" against any NATO nation. There hasn't been any "Russian aggression" against anyone. Moscow rationally supported a peaceful plebiscite in Crimea that resulted in its entirely legal, democratic and popular accession to Russia without loss of a single life. Moscow now supports the Russian-speaking, Russia-cultured Russophile population of some parts of eastern Ukraine, many thousands of whom have had to flee persecution by the Kiev government. But US-NATO disagrees with this and has picked a fight that it can't win, either through its silly sanctions or - and much more worrying - on the battlefield.
The UK's Prime Minister Cameron declares about Putin and Ukraine that "we cannot allow him to take the whole country." But he refuses to see that Putin doesn't want Ukraine. Who on earth would want it? (The EU certainly doesn't.) It's a corrupt and chaotic economic disaster. If Russia did invade and occupy the place, which it could easily do, it would have a vast, expensive and insoluble internal security problem on its hands, and it doesn't want that. All Russia wants is justice for the Russia-cultured inhabitants of the eastern regions: no less - but no more. And it will get it.
The present posture of provocation and bravado on the part of the US and NATO is dangerous and potentially catastrophic. The pointless and contrived confrontation with Russia is much more serious than irritating incidents in which their intelligence airplanes trail their coats near sensitive installations of foreign nations. It involves a few incompetent politicians (who are strikingly unpopular in their own countries) making threats against a proud nation that has had almost enough of their arrogance. Puffing and posturing about Russia may be intended to play well with their domestic audiences, but there is a limit to Russian patience. NATO is a sick joke, certainly - and suffering humiliation from its defeat in Afghanistan by a few thousand raggy-baggie guerrillas - but these people are playing with fire ; and the danger for us all is that their swaggering antics could set light to the world.
Brian Cloughley is a former soldier who writes on military and political affairs.