New research out of Chinese think tanks shows that the US has increased its military operations in the disputed South China Sea and other waters near China this year, The South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday.
Wu Shicun, who heads China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said that the US has conducted about 500 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea this year. Adding the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea brings the total number of US flights in the region to over 2,000 in 2021 alone.
According to the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), the US conducted just under 1,000 reconnaissance flights in the region in 2020. The dramatic increase represents Washington’s focus on countering China.
The SCSPI said the US conducted 52 sorties over the South China Sea in October. The October flights were slightly less than the 62 recorded in September, but the think tank said the US activity in the waters is intensifying overall.
The SCSPI said the scale of US naval operations in the South China have grown since the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its strike group conducted exercises in the waters with the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in early October.
The presence of US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea is now a common occurrence. The SCSPI said the Carl Vinson entered the waters nine times this year. Three other US aircraft carriers and their strike groups have also sailed into the area this year, including the Theodore Roosevelt, Nimitz and, Ronald Reagan.
The level of US military activity increases the risk of an accident with China’s People’s Liberation Army that could lead to a full-blown war due to the low state of US-China relations. A US nuclear-powered submarine recently had an accident in the South China Sea.
The US Navy said this week that the submarine collided with an underwater mountain, but the US hasn’t disclosed any other details around the incident, and Beijing has slammed the US for its lack of “transparency and responsibility.”
Wu recalled a 2001 incident where a US spy plane collided with a Chinese aircraft 59 nautical miles off the coast of Hainan Island. “If there is another collision in the South China Sea, just like what happened in 2001, it would be catastrophic given China‘s current military and national strength,” Wu said.