Amid growing US-China tensions, US pledges spy missions in the South China Sea will continue

This appeared in The Millennial Source

China has long denounced US surveillance activity. However, while such missions are relatively routine, the uproar over the matter that has played out in public is highly unusual.

On July 21, the United States ordered the immediate shutdown of the Chinese Consulate General in Houston, which was followed by Beijing issuing a statement that accused the US of flying a U-2 spy plane in a no-fly zone in the South China Sea in an attempt to gather intelligence on Chinese activities.

Authorities in the US military confirmed that weeks of increased US activity in the region had triggered protest from Beijing, which promptly lodged an official complaint with Washington over concerns that its safety code had been seriously violated and threatened “potential mishaps” should the US operations continue.

China has long denounced US surveillance activity. However, while such missions are relatively routine, the uproar over the matter that has played out in public is highly unusual.

The Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-run press agency, cited Chinese Defence Ministry Spokesperson Wu Qian as alleging that “The move was an obvious provocation” and warning that “China firmly opposes such provocative actions and has lodged solemn representations with the US side.”

The ministry added that “China demands the U.S. side immediately stop this kind of provocative behavior and take actual steps to safeguard peace and stability in the region.”

The potential “mishaps” Wu spoke of may point to instances such as that of April 2001, when a US spy plane was intercepted by a Chinese fighter jet, triggering a collision that led to the death of the Chinese pilot and the forced emergency landing of the American plane.

Chinese state media revealed at least five additional American U-2 aircraft that had been shot down in the Indo-Pacific as they attempted to unlawfully enter claimed airspace.

In an interview with the Xinhua News Agency in August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi contended that the US has sent 2,000 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea in the first half of this year alone, an average of nearly 11 each day.

The heightened activity was also confirmed by US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Esper stated on July 21 that US Navy freedom of navigation operations — an international maritime law allowing the free movement of vessels — were at record levels last year.

In recent months, Chinese military exercises have also increased.

“The past month has seen more military exercises conducted by the PLA than any previous month in many years,” Li Jie, a former researcher at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval Research Academy, told the state owned and operated China Daily in August.

Despite the stern warnings issued by China the US maintains that the U-2’s flight was “within the accepted international rules and regulations governing aircraft flights.”

In a recent statement, the US’ Pacific Air Forces asserted that “Pacific Air Forces personnel will continue to fly and operate anywhere international law allows, at the time and tempo of our choosing.”

Relations between the US and China have fallen to historic lows over issues that vary from Beijing’s newly-passed national security law and its crackdowns on human rights to, perhaps more notably, the increased intimidation tactics China has used in the widely-contested South China Sea.

In an effort to push back on China’s territorial claims, US naval forces have routinely orchestrated flights and freedom of navigation operations near Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

“By simultaneously conducting drills in the three seas, it means China is testing its ability to fight enemies coming from three directions at the same time — for example from Taiwan, from Japan and from the U.S. from the south,” Chinese military expert Ni Lexiong, a retired professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told Reuters.

“These missions show the ability of Air Force Global Strike Command to deliver lethal, ready, long-range strike options to geographic combatant commanders anytime, anywhere,” a statement from Pacific Air Forces said.

The latest bout of military tension comes alongside the release of the US’ unclassified “2020 China Military Power Report,” with the US increasingly wary of the possibility that China will attempt a takeover of neighboring Taiwan.

The US and China clash over the region seemingly culminated in August 2020 when US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited Taipei. The trip made Azar one of the highest-ranking US officials to visit Taiwan in decades.

During the visit, the PLA attempted to assert its authority over the region by sending fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, only the third time it has purposely done so since 1999.

Originally published at on September 16, 2020.

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