US spy planes keep close eye on China amid live-fire military exercises

Liu Zhen
·2-min read

A US spy plane buzzed the Chinese coast this week, one of several warplanes deployed close to Chinese territorial waters amid live-fire exercises by the PLA Navy, according to a think tank.

The Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said a US Air Force RC-135W electronic reconnaissance aircraft made an unusually close flight along China’s eastern coast on Tuesday, coming within 40 nautical miles of Qingdao, the headquarters of People’s Liberation Army Navy’s North Sea Fleet.

An RC-135W and a P-8A anti-submarine aircraft also patrolled the South China Sea on Wednesday during live-fire exercises in the disputed waters, according to the think tank.

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Last week, US spy planes patrolled along the southeast coast of Guangdong province before heading south to the disputed Paracel Islands, also in the South China Sea, according to open-source aviation radar responder records.

The think tank said the aircraft involved in the patrols last week and on Wednesday temporarily “disappeared” from public radar records when flying over the eastern to northern section of the Paracels, possibly “having turned off their responders”.

Beijing’s ‘combat drills’ near Taiwan seen as a message to US military

State broadcaster China Central Television said near-shore patrols enabled planes to detect electronic signals on land in their mission to collect intelligence on the PLA.

“The patrols enable them to obtain more information in the shortest time and more valuable signals in the most efficient manner,” the broadcaster said.

At the same time, PLA’s Liaoning aircraft carrier strike group has been conducting exercises near Taiwan.

Last September, China accused US warplanes of masquerading as civilian aircraft in close-shore reconnaissance missions, posing a “serious security threat”. Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said identity disguise was a “common trick”, with the US Air Force carrying out such exercises at least 100 times in 2020.

In August, a US surveillance plane flew into the no-fly zone China announced for a military exercise in the Yellow Sea, prompting a protest from the Chinese defense ministry.

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