China Defends Pilots After Accusation They Gave Canadians the Middle Finger

China stood by the actions of its air force pilots on Monday after Ottawa's top defense official repeated Canada's concerns about risky interceptions in the East China Sea.

Mid-air intercepts of Canadian aircraft by Chinese fighter jets were "very concerning and unprofessional," Anita Anand, Canada's defense minister, said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore over the weekend. Her American counterpart, Lloyd Austin, also backed Ottawa's concerns in his address at Asia's premier defense forum.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded to Anand's comments by accusing the Canadian military of flying "thousands of miles to harass China at its doorstep." The official said Canadian aircraft "approached China's territorial airspace" to engage in "provocations at close distance."

Earlier this month, Canada said aircrews in slow-moving CP-140 surveillance aircraft were conducting U.N.-sanctioned operations off North Korea between April and May when they encountered Chinese fighter pilots. A report by Global News said some intercepts happened at between 20 to 100 feet—close enough to "see them raising their middle fingers" at Canadian pilots.

Canadian aircrews "felt sufficiently at risk that they had to quickly modify their own flight path in order to increase separation and avoid a potential collision with the intercepting aircraft," according to its June 1 statement, which noted the interactions were "well-documented."

Last week, the Chinese Defense Ministry accused Ottawa of conducting close-in reconnaissance under the pretext of enforcing U.N. sanctions.

Wang said Chinese pilots "exercised maximum restraint the entire time and handled the situation in a professional and safe manner, preventing further escalation of the incident."

Austin, who also met his Chinese counterpart while in Singapore, noted "an alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA aircraft and vessels," referring to the People's Liberation Army.

"In February, a PLA Navy ship directed a laser at an Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, seriously endangering everyone on board. And in the past few weeks, PLA fighters have conducted a series of dangerous intercepts of allied aircraft operating lawfully in the East China and the South China seas. Now, this should worry us all," he said.

The intercept in the South China Sea was recently confirmed by Defense Minister Richard Marles of Australia, who said an Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft was met by a Chinese J-16 fighter, which "cut across the nose" of the slower surveillance plane and "released a bundle of chaff" that was ingested into its engine.

The incident took place in international airspace, Canberra said. China argues the P-8 was approaching the disputed Paracel Islands.