One Chinese naval officer has advice for fighter pilots intercepting U.S. surveillance planes in the wake of an incident over the South China Sea last week that Washington condemned as dangerous - fly even closer.
The comments by Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong from the National Defense University in Beijing, reported in state media this week, reflect what Chinese military experts say is China's determination to shield its expanding ballistic missile submarine fleet from U.S. spy planes.
Risky intercepts off China's coast are likely to continue, even intensify, the experts said, adding that such actions could represent a directive from above rather than the actions of rogue pilots.
"We didn't give them enough pressure (before)," Zhang said in the Global Times, a popular tabloid under the official People's Daily newspaper that is known for its nationalist sentiments. "A knife at the throat is the only deterrence. From now on, we must fly even closer to U.S. surveillance aircraft."
Pentagon officials said a Chinese fighter buzzed a P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine and reconnaissance plane on Aug. 19, at one point flying 9 meters (30 feet) from its wing tip before doing a barrel role over the top of it.
China dismissed the criticism as groundless and said the pilot had kept a safe distance.
A likely target of the U.S. surveillance is China's submarine fleet operating from a base in southern Hainan island, the military experts said.
Among the submarines using the base are large Jin-class vessels capable of carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that are expected to form a key plank in China's nuclear deterrence strategy.
The precise operational readiness of China's three or four Jin-class vessels, including their missile launching capabilities, is not publicly known, military analysts said.
"Long-term, these submarines are China's only hope for a meaningful deterrence ... they are everything to China," said Zhang Baohui, a mainland security specialist at Hong Kong's Lingnan University and author of a forthcoming book on Beijing's nuclear strategy and forces.
Ballistic missile submarines are more important to China's nuclear deterrent than other major powers due to Beijing's policy, dating back to the 1960s, of not deploying nuclear weapons unless attacked with them first, he said.
This means China's larger land-based missiles are considered vulnerable to a first strike if Beijing fulfills its "no first strike" pledge during a conflict.
Having submarines able to travel far into the Pacific Ocean undetected with missiles that can reach the United States was therefore China's "only hope of a credible nuclear deterrent, as it secures second strike capability", Zhang added.
"Their deployment will, of course, complicate U.S. strategic calculations – and we may already be seeing the impact of that," Zhang said.
The P-8 Poseidon was southeast of Hainan in international airspace when it was intercepted.
A U.S. defense official said the Chinese pilot was from the same Hainan unit that appeared to be responsible for other encounters in March, April and May, part of what he called a rising trend of "nonstandard, unprofessional and unsafe" intercepts of U.S. aircraft since the end of 2013.
Six state-of-the-art P-8s were deployed to Okinawa in Japan starting late last year, replacing Cold War-era EP-3 aircraft.
Within Asian and Western military circles there is much debate about the skill and discipline of Chinese pilots.