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China Think-Tank Tracks Rising U.S. Air and Naval Activity in South China Sea

Aug. 3, 2020 (EIRNS)—U.S. air and naval activity has been stepping up off China’s periphery in recent months, as tracked by the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI). From July 15-30, SCSPI’s Weibo account has released a total of 24 updates on the activity tracks of U.S. warships and warplanes in regions including the South China Sea and East China Sea, according to Global Times. Hu Bo, director of SCSPI, explained in an interview posted Aug. 2 that the Beijing-based think-tank is continuously tracking and releasing aircraft and vessel movements from countries within and outside of the region.

Hu explained that an imbalance exists in terms of information disclosure in the South China Sea, as the United States releases a lot more information, so the outside world only sees a South China Sea situation shaped by U.S. officials and think-tanks. “Our information releases caught so much attention and this is another indication of the lack of South China Sea information,” Hu said.

According to data released by SCSPI, in July, the U.S. military conducted 67 reconnaissance sorties in the South China Sea with large reconnaissance aircraft, ranging from multiple types of warplanes including P-8A and P-3C anti-submarine patrol aircraft. “Even so, what we have been able to monitor and release was only a tip of the iceberg,” Hu asserted. SCSPI relies on publicly available shipping and aircraft tracking systems, including the Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) to track vessels and aircraft. Military vessels and aircraft often aren’t trackable on these systems, because they frequently shut off their transponders. SCSPI’s tracking data nonetheless shows that the U.S. military has significantly increased large reconnaissance aircraft activities in July compared to May’s 35 and June’s 49. July’s figure is 67 flights.

According to SCSPI’s data, U.S. reconnaissance aircraft flew 15 missions during the PLA Navy drills in the vicinity of the Xisha Islands from July 1-5. During all of July, U.S. reconnaissance aircraft entered areas within 70 nautical miles of China’s territorial sea baseline nine times, six times within 60 nautical miles, and in the closest event, only about 40 nautical miles away from China’s territorial sea baseline. These kinds of close-up reconnaissance are provocations; “since the U.S. military has all-round, advanced reconnaissance technologies, such a high frequency aerial reconnaissance and close distance would not be necessary if it just wants to gather intelligence on China,” Hu said.

With these activities comes the risk of uncontrolled incidents. In recent years, Hu said, America has been paying less and less attention to safe distance, so a crisis could very easily take place. “Given the current overall relations between China and the U.S., if any maritime or aerial accident takes place, the friction could likely not be effectively managed and result in an escalation. Therefore, the uncertain factors in Chinese and U.S. militaries’ interactions in the South China Sea are large, and the risks are becoming higher.”

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