China has demanded that the United States stop spy plane flights near the Chinese coast, saying they have "severely harmed" trust, but the Pentagon insisted Wednesday it was within its rights.
The dispute comes after Taiwanese media reported two Chinese fighter jets attempted to scare off an American U2 reconnaissance plane that was collecting intelligence on China while flying along the Taiwan Strait in late June.
Beijing's defense ministry said the US must end such flights, calling them a "major obstacle" as the two Pacific powers try to put a series of military disputes behind them, China's state-run Global Times reported.
The flights "severely harmed" mutual trust, the paper quoted the ministry as saying.
"We demand that the US respects China's sovereignty and security interests, and take concrete measures to boost a healthy and stable development of military relations," it added. The defense ministry declined comment to AFP.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan would not give details about the recent episode but said that no U.S. spy plane crossed into Chinese airspace.
"I can say that we fly reconnaissance missions in international airspace routinely and it is not unusual that (China) scrambles fighters," Lapan told reporters.
Lapan said that the issue showed the need for further military dialogue with China -- a priority for Admiral Mike Mullen, who earlier this month became the first chief of the US military to visit China since 2007.
"Part of the reason that we have a desire for a more robust (military) relationship and communication with the Chinese is to prevent things from developing into a crisis," Lapan said.
"There are going to be areas where we don't agree. It's our view that this is a freedom of navigation issue, that we operate in international waters and international airspace," he said.
Sino-U.S. military relations have been plagued in recent years by periodic tensions stemming from U.S. plans for arms sales to Taiwan and naval standoffs in the disputed South China Sea.
Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory and refuses to abandon the possibility of taking the self-ruled island by force. The two sides split at the end of a civil war.
The United States recognizes Beijing and not Taipei, but provides military support to Taiwan.
In the June encounter, one of the Chinese Sukhoi SU-27 fighters crossed over the Taiwan Strait's middle line, widely considered to be the boundary between Taiwan's airspace and that of the Chinese mainland, Taiwanese media have reported.
One of the Chinese jets did not leave until two Taiwanese planes were sent to intercept it, the island's United Daily News reported.
In April 2001, a U.S. surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet collided in mid-air, killing a Chinese pilot and forcing the 24-member U.S. crew to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan island. The Americans were freed after 11 days in an early crisis for newly elected President George W Bush.
Mullen, writing in The New York Times on Tuesday, said that he spoke in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart General Chen Bingde about having "more frequent discussions, more exercises, more personnel exchanges."
"A good bit of misunderstanding between our militaries can be cleared up by reaching out to each other. We don't have to give away secrets to make our intentions clear, just open up a little," wrote the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.© 2011 Agence France-Presse