Chinese think tank says there’s been ‘huge increase’ in US spy plane flights over South China Sea

Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint
An Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, July 24, 2015.

  • US reconnaissance flights have been constant this year, a Beijing-based think tank says.
  • The number of flights that the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative reported in May was twice that of a year ago.
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The United States conducted 72 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea in May, maintaining a constant presence over the disputed waters, a Beijing-based think tank said.

The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said in a monthly summary on Thursday that there was a slight month-on-month rise in US reconnaissance flight operations near China’s coast in May, from 65 in April.

But it said the number was a “huge increase compared with the corresponding period last year, which was only 35.”

The think tank previously reported record US spy plane operations over the disputed sea, numbering 70 in January and 75 in February. It said the US Navy operated 57 of the 72 sorties in May, and the US Air Force the remainder.

Military commentator and former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) instructor Song Zhongping said reconnaissance flights from the US over the South China Sea were becoming more normal.

“The PLA’s military capabilities are constantly improving, and the US military is increasingly worried,” he said. “On the other hand, the US military is also preparing for combat. Therefore, it has to increase reconnaissance against the PLA.

“This reminds us that we need to be prepared for military confrontations against the United States.”

Marine Corps Marines refueling Navy P-8 Poseidon
US Marines train with a US Navy P-8 Poseidon in the Pacific region during Exercise Noble Fury 21, October 9, 2020.

When the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur was transiting the Taiwan Strait last month, US anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a spy plane were flying over the South China Sea, said the think tank, which monitors military activity in the region. It said the aircraft were “probably providing the intelligence support for the warship.”

Beijing called the transit a “provocation” and said it sent “wrong signals” to supporters of Taiwan independence.

Last month, the Chinese defence ministry said the US had ramped up reconnaissance activities near China’s coast during Joe Biden‘s US presidency.

It said such operations had increased by more than 20% for US warships and 40% for planes in and around waters claimed by China, compared with the same period last year under the Donald Trump administration.

Biden in April used his first address to the joint sessions of Congress to cast the US-China relationship as a battle in century-defining technologies and vowed to “maintain a strong military presence” in the Indo-Pacific region – “not to start conflict, but to prevent one”.

Last week, Beijing said the US should show “sincerity” about improving communication between their militaries.

“We urge the US to walk the talk, show sincerity and meet the Chinese side halfway to strengthen dialogue and communication and to properly manage disputes,” defence ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang.

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