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US sends 60 spy planes close to China in September: Beijing think tank

12:29 | 14/10/2020

Increase in air refuelling may suggest United States is preparing for future long-distance missions in the South China Sea, a Beijing think tank says

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us sends 60 spy planes close to china in september beijing think tank
China has built military bases on some atolls (Image: Getty)

At least 60 American warplanes conducted close-up reconnaissance flights near China in September and the US may be preparing for future long-distance missions in the South China Sea, according to a think tank in Beijing.

Among the 60 warplanes recorded, 41 flew over the disputed South China Sea, six over the East China Sea, and, further north, 13 over the Yellow Sea, the Chinese government-backed South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) said in a report released on Monday. It said: “It’s unusual for the US to dispatch fuel tankers from Guam [instead of from Kadena airbase in Japan] because such operations are uneconomical and inefficient", Express quoted. “This showed that the South China Sea region is still the US’ primary focus, but what is equally notable is that activities in the Yellow Sea region had a marked increase when compared with the sporadic activities two months ago.”

It said that while the total number of flights was roughly the same as in July and August, the real numbers may have been higher as some warplanes disguised themselves as civil planes. The warplanes typically carry out two kinds of reconnaissance flights: routine and specific. The former are more predictable, given their set pattern of plane type, frequency and region.

The report highlighted the danger of such disguised spying activities, with six US planes having spied on Chinese military activities while using false civil aircraft codes.

us sends 60 spy planes close to china in september beijing think tank
US has increased military presence in the region (Image: Getty)

Increasing tension between powers

In late September, a US Air Force plane changed its aircraft identification code as it flew over the Yellow Sea, making it resemble a Philippine aircraft, before reverting to its original number after completing its mission, the SCSPI said.

Also in September, American RC-135S planes electronically disguised themselves as Malaysian civilian aircraft while flying close to Chinese airspace, the SCSPI said. The switch was also reported by Popular Mechanics magazine.

According to South China Morning Post, Beijing said in August that flying in disguise was putting civilian aircraft at risk. In 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down a Korean Airlines passenger jet in its airspace, killing all 269 on board, after misidentifying it as an intruding US spy plane.

Relations between the US and China have grown strained over recent weeks with Secretary of State Mike Pence calling on other nations to counter Beijing’s dominance in the region, Express said.

us sends 60 spy planes close to china in september beijing think tank
US Air Force RC-135S planes last month disguised themselves as civilian aircraft, according to a Beijing think tank. (Photo: Handout)

Low likelihood of escalation, said experts

Ben Ho, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the use of the Guam base showed the US military was planning for a worst-case scenario.

“The US deployment of aerial tankers from Guam rather than Okinawa hints at the much talked-about contingency where bases on the Japanese island are knocked out by Chinese missiles during the opening stages of a Sino-American conflict”. But Ho added: “While there is much talk about the dangers posed by unsafe encounters between US and Chinese forces in the air or even at sea, the potential for escalation in such situations is low.”

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst specializing in Chinese security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said the US needed to step up its presence to deter China from engaging in regional aggression, including in the South China Sea. “The US has to deter such an act, and these types of training missions are part of that – forward presence and resolve being communicated to Beijing,” South China Morning Post quoted.

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