As part of Washington’s increased military presence in Indo-Pacific, the month of July has seen a record number of aerial surveillance flights by US military aircraft in the South China Sea and near China’s coast. A Beijing-based think tank counted over 50 sorties by US military aircraft in the region in the first three weeks of July.
“At the moment the US military is sending three to five reconnaissance aircraft each day to the South China Sea,” the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) said. While July saw record numbers, the increased flights started earlier this year with “much higher frequency, closer distance and more variety of missions,” SCSPI said.
The closest flight to China’s coast happened in May, when a US Navy plane almost flew within the 12 nautical mile zone of China’s Hainan Island. SCSPI statistics show that flights by US planes within 50 to 60 nautical miles of the Chinese Mainland were “frequent.”
With US-China relations rapidly deteriorating in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the South China Sea has seen massive US military exercises. Twice this month, two aircraft carrier strike groups led drills in the contested waters. The Trump administration also formally rejected most of Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea, ratcheting up tensions even more.
In 2001, a US reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese military aircraft 59 nautical miles off the coast of Hainan Island. The collision killed the Chinese pilot and forced the US plane to land on Hainan. The ramping up of US flights in the region increases the risk of accidents like the 2001 incident, and souring US-China relations makes solving future incidents diplomatically less likely.