According to a Beijing-based think tank that monitors flights in the region, the US flew at least 60 warplanes near China’s coast in September, The South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.
The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) recorded 41 US flights over the disputed South China Sea, six over the East China Sea, and 13 over the Yellow Sea.
In a report released on Monday, the SCSPI said, based on refueling activity, the US could be preparing for long-distance attacks on targets in the South China Sea. The report said the US sent planes from Guam to refuel surveillance planes over the South China Sea.
“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,” the SCSPI report said. “Such operations are more probably preparing for future long-distance refueling in extreme conditions, and thus deserve great attention.”
The report said the September numbers were roughly the same as July and August. But the SCSPI noted there could have been more US flights in the region because some planes disguised themselves as civilian aircraft or did not turn on their transponders.
The SCSPI recorded instances of US military planes disguising as civilian aircraft in September. The think tank warned of the danger this practice could pose to actual civilian aircraft in the region.
Souring US-China relations in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have come with an uptick in US military activity in the region. The South China Sea has especially turned into a dangerous flashpoint between the two powers. In July, the Trump administration formally rejected most of Beijing’s claims to the disputed waters, and the US regularly sends warships near Chinese-claimed islands in the region.