The United States has responded to China claiming sovereignty over South China Sea by contesting those claims by military flyovers and bypasses by military vessels.

China probably could not fire at the planes without escalating the conlict to the point where there would be a major risk of war. Warning shots would carry the risk of being misinterpreted, and probably be ignored anyway, since the explicit purpose is to defy the Chinese claims.

If China instead chose to respond in a tit-for-tat manner to the perceived sovereignty violation and flied through US airspace, possibly somewhere near Guam, but in a way designed to be as unthreatening as possible – for example, by flying with obviously unarmed planes, communicating their intentions to the US and staying away from military installations, only to make a point – what would likely happen? Is it a given that a capable sovereign nation would in such a situation as a last resort shoot the offending plane down, essentially escalating to the same point where the crisis would be if China shot down a US plane?

  • 1
    I voted to close as opinion.
    – user9389
    Jul 7, 2017 at 21:41
  • Please validate the boundaries selected when you speak about China's air space. Is this the same area currently being contested by Philippines and Indonesia? Jul 7, 2017 at 22:13
  • 3
    To be tit-for-tat, you would have to hypothesis China flying through airspace claimed by the US which is disputed, and not internationally recognized. I don't believe that exists. Jul 7, 2017 at 23:19
  • Vote to close as based on the false premise that the US intentionally flies into Chinese airspace. Suppose the Chinese decided to claim the Phillipines, Australia, or Antarctica?
    – jamesqf
    Jul 8, 2017 at 6:02
  • I think you are reading way too much to my wording. I'm certainly not pro-Chinese on the South China Sea issue. This was intended merely as a question exploring the possible consequences of a strategy China could take, not as any kind of position on who is right. Jul 8, 2017 at 12:54

2 Answers 2


The US doesnt want a war with China as much as China doesn't want one with the US. It is highly unlikely the US would shoot down a Chinese aircraft in the situation described. Standard procedure involves radioing the plane and issuing multiple warning to leave US airspace, the US would probably then send out fighter aircraft to "escort" the Chinese aircraft. These aircraft will perform several warning manoevers including tilting its wings to show of its anarments, but if the Chinese plane is unarmed and doesn't pose a direct threat it is unlikely it would be shot down, although it may be forced to land.

The political consequences would likely revolve around bellicose rhetoric and economic sanctions on China.

  • How will it be forced to land? We're talking about an intentional provocation, where the Chinese pilot is unlikely to cooperate.
    – ugoren
    Jul 7, 2017 at 22:23
  • @ugoren "The customary procedure is for the military plane to approach the airliner from below and to the left, where his plane is easily visible from the left seat where the captain sits. The forcing plane waggles his wings to signal the demand for a forced landing" - From the Wikipedia article Jul 7, 2017 at 22:27
  • So they'll threaten the Chinese plain, demanding a landing. According to your answer, these will be empty threats.
    – ugoren
    Jul 7, 2017 at 22:30
  • @ugoren Either way if the pilot refuses to comply he will eventually have to leave US Airspace as he runs out of fuel. As long as he doeant pose a direct threat it is unlikely that he will be shot down Jul 7, 2017 at 22:35

Your question presumes that China has any right to "respond" to anything. If China flew military planes over Guam or sailed military vessels into the territorial waters surrounding Guam, that would be a bona-fide incursion into U.S. territory. The U.S. wouldn't likely respond with force, but it certainly would be an international incident.

The issue with China is that they have laid claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, an area that covers over 1.4 million square miles (3.5 million sq. km). The legitimacy of that claim is recognized by no one except China. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (a treaty which 167 countries have signed on to) defines sovereign territorial waters (and airspace) as a zone extending 12 nautical miles from a country's coastline, and an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles away. China's claim to the South China Sea (the "Nine-Dash Line") extends far, far beyond that.

The U.S. military's presence in that area is a show of force to China that the United States does not accept their claim, and it also serves as a signal to its allies and trading partners in the area (Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia) that the U.S. is actively engaged in defending their interests there against potential Chinese aggression.

None of this is pretext to a war, however. Right now it is more sabre rattling than anything else, with China seeing what they can get away with, and the U.S. posturing to show that they can't. The bottom line is that the U.S. military has every right to be in the South China Sea, but China's military would have no right to be in Guam.

  • 1
    @GeorgeChen; I thought of that right after I posted it and removed the possessive pronouns. I am an American, but this isn't really an American issue exclusively. Everybody in that area of the world has cause for concern over China's claim.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Jul 7, 2017 at 23:55
  • How does my question presume any right to anything? Obviously, China views the rights quite differently, and no part of my question took a position on who is right. Jul 8, 2017 at 12:28
  • Moreover, issues like this usually have very little to do with what is right. I doubt the US would behave much differently from China in their position (and indeed it is my understanding that the US already claims more sea than these same laws would allow). Jul 8, 2017 at 12:36
  • This answer seems like it should be a comment on the question: pointing out that the question makes an assumption (that a Chinese incursion would be "tit-for-tat") that isn't really true. This answer doesn't actually answer the question of how America would respond.
    – Readin
    Jul 10, 2017 at 2:28

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