China’s military is closing the technology gap with the United States, although the experience of America’s pilots still gives them an “unbelievably huge” edge, according to the Pacific Air Forces chief.

General Lori Robinson, in Singapore to attend the country’s air show, said she felt assured that Chinese pilots would act professionally in interactions with the US, citing a September agreement on rules of behaviour.

US military pilots flying in the contested South China Sea have been warned over radio, sometimes repeatedly, by Chinese personnel telling them to leave, while Japanese planes have been challenged in the neighbouring East China Sea.

President Xi Jinping has prioritised modernising the military with a focus on the navy and air force as he seeks to project power outward and assert China’s claims to territory in the waters of the west Pacific. That has included greater spending on longer-range and higher tech ships, planes and submarines, while the People’s Liberation Army has also focused on improving training and standards for its fighter pilots.

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“The technology gap certainly is closing, there’s no denying that,” General Robinson said in an interview. “The difference between that technology gap is the training that the United States air crew get. That training and the way our airmen work every single day, no matter what platform that they are on, and all the people that support those airmen to do that job. That edge is unbelievably huge.”

The Pentagon in a report released in May said China’s rapid military modernisation has the potential to reduce core US military technological advantages.”

China is “investing in capabilities designed to defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party, including US, intervention during a crisis or conflict”, according to the report.

Security analysts, however, have expressed doubt about the ability of China’s military pilots, noting a substantial portion of their training time was spent learning doctrine. That has raised concerns about them acting rashly when in proximity to planes from other nations.

The technology gap certainly is closing, there’s no denying that
General Lori Robinson, US Pacific Air Forces chief

Shortly after she took her post in October 2014, Robinson said the US was concerned Chinese jets may engage in further risky intercepts. A Chinese fighter flew within six metres of a US P-8 Poseidon aircraft flying at nearly 650 km/h near Hainan Island, China’s gateway to the South China Sea, in August of that year, an encounter the Pentagon described as unsafe and unprofessional.

The core of U.S.-China air tensions is what activities are permitted within a country’s 200-mile (322 km) offshore exclusive economic zone, where coastal states have sovereign rights over marine resources. The US says international law permits such flights, which have been a standard practice for decades. China objects, claiming such freedom is reserved for civilian aircraft.

China contests more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, putting it at odds with fellow claimants including Vietnam and the Philippines in a body of water that annually hosts US$5 trillion in shipping. China has reclaimed more than 1,200 hectares in the sea and is building military facilities there. It has made greater use of fishing and maritime surveillance boats to warn off other vessels in the area, blurring the lines between its navy and coast guard.

The US sent a warship into waters contested by China, Vietnam and Taiwan last month to challenge the “excessive” maritime claims of all three. It was the second time in less than six months the US has challenged China with a freedom-of-navigation voyage. During the first operation by the USS Lassen, where it passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly island chain, it was shadowed and warned by Chinese vessels.

Robinson said the US would continue to fly in international airspace when required. “Any airplane that we need to go from point A to point B in international airspace will do that,” she said. “It’s not unusual for us to fly throughout the region and international airspace.”

When asked if the Chinese were still warning US military planes away from the South China Sea, she said “they are talking, but mostly in my world from airplanes to airplanes everybody has acted professionally in accordance with the rules of behaviour.”

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Robinson, who joined the Air Force in 1982, is the first woman to have an Air Force command. She was previously vice commander of the air combat command at the Langley Air Force Base in Virginia before taking her current role in Hawaii, according to her biography.

She said any discussion of the US having to cede ground to China in Asia as that country’s economic and military clout grows was hypothetical.

“What I depend upon today is our presence in the region because our presence in the region provides that stability and capability in the region,” she said. “Our presence in the region allows for us to have partnerships throughout the region.”

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