07:35 GMT10 May 2021
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    US spy planes made their closest pass to the Chinese mainland in years on Sunday as another aircraft seemed to fly over Taiwanese airspace. The incidents come amid increased tensions over the issue of airspace, as each side challenges sovereignty of the other.

    US spy planes were very busy off China’s eastern coast on Sunday.

    Possible Anti-Submarine Patrols Close to Shanghai

    In the East China Sea, a US Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was spotted flying near the US Navy destroyer USS Rafael Peralta; at its closest, the Poseidon flew just 41 nautical miles from the coast of Zhejiang just south of Shanghai, according to the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a think tank associated with Peking University.

    ​SCSPI suggested the aircraft and warship could be part of a joint operation. The Poseidon has a slew of equipment designed to detect both surface and subsurface threats, including a magnetic anomaly detector that can sense the distortion in Earth’s magnetic field created by a submarine’s steel hull, even if it’s hundreds of feet below the surface. It can also deploy torpedoes and anti-ship missiles. The destroyer also has its own detection methods.

    Aries Flies Near Fujian

    Meanwhile, south of Taiwan, an EP-3E Aries electronic intelligence aircraft flew just 57 nautical miles from the coastal waters of China’s Fujian Province, entering the Taiwan Strait at one point before turning back, SCSPI noted.

    ​Did an RC-135W Fly Over Taiwan?

    Early in the morning on Monday, SCSPI reported a third incident that, if accurate, could be the most explosive yet: an RC-135W Rivet Joint spy plane loaded down with signals intelligence equipment seemed to fly over the southern tip of Taiwan twice, on its way to the South China Sea from the Philippine Sea and back again.

    ​While flying close to Chinese waters is provocative, flying over Taiwan would be considered by Beijing to be a violation of its own airspace, since China regards Taiwan as a rebellious province of its own. The island has been the home of the Republic of China since 1949, after the communist Red Army defeated the republican forces on the mainland and founded the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. Both governments claim to be the legitimate representative of all of China, but in practice only a handful of nations recognize Taiwan’s claim any longer.

    Despite this, the US is pledged to defend Taiwan’s de facto independence, though it rarely elects to fly aircraft over the island. However, if the report is accurate, this would be the second time in as many months the US has done so: the first was a US Navy C-40A Clipper cargo plane that traversed the island on June 8.

    Taiwan News reported that the Taiwanese air force claimed on Monday that SCSPI’s flight path for the RC-135W was “incorrect,” denying it flew over Taiwan. It’s certainly possible for such programs to have errors; two weeks ago, a mystery aircraft seemed to fly all the way around the globe several times before returning to Los Angeles, California, from the South China Sea. SCSPI dismissed it as “some technical error.”

    Nearly Two Weeks of Daily Flights

    However, what’s not an error is that for 12 days straight, US military aircraft have flown close to Chinese airspace, part of a pronounced step-up of patrols in the seas off China’s eastern and southern coasts by US aircraft since April. On Thursday, China’s Naval Air Force warned off an approaching US aircraft in the East China Sea.

    US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft
    © AFP 2021 / GREG WOOD
    US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft

    The slew of recent incidents with US aircraft makes a mockery of concerns by Taiwan and Washington that Chinese aircraft are getting too close to Taiwanese and Japanese airspace. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu opined last week that Chinese aircraft flying near Taiwanese airspace is “virtually a daily occurrence,” and US politicians have postured as if Chinese actions are uniquely aggressive.

    However, SCSPI Director Hu Bo dismissed the notion one of these incidents could spiral into a major war between the US and China, although noting it could still spark a more minor incident.

    “Although the US has been trying to decouple with China in other areas, they are still closely connected,” Hu told the South China Morning Post. “So the chance of a large-scale conflict happening is small. But a medium or small-scale conflict is possible, such as two warships hitting each other or occasional crossfire, since the two countries’ warships and aircraft encounter each other every day.”


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