US warplanes on Beijing’s radar in South China Sea, American air force chiefs say

Liu Zhen

The US Air Force’s frequent activities over the South China Sea might not attract the same attention as the US Navy’s, but they still played an important role in negotiations with China, according to American air force officers.

General Charles Brown, commander of US Pacific Air Forces, said US warplanes – including bombers, U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones – regularly conducted “freedom of navigation” operations over the disputed waters despite China’s deployment of air defence facilities on artificial islands and reefs in the area.

“We’ve been flying in and around the South China Sea for really about the past 15 years, and I would probably tell you we’ve done some as recently as this week,” Brown said in Hawaii on Friday after the 2019 Pacific Air Chiefs Symposium.

Brown said the aircraft were deployed alongside the US Navy’s P-3/P-8 anti-submarine planes, and while the flyovers did not get as much media coverage as naval operations, the response from China was just as strong.

“We do hear about it because we do get calls from the PRC,” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

The South China Sea is home to some of the world’s busiest trade routes and is claimed by a number of countries in the region, including China, which has built military outposts with airfields, naval harbours on its artificial islands, and deployed air defence radars and missiles there.

In recent years, the US Navy has mounted regular patrols near those outposts to challenge what the United States calls China’s “excessive claims”.

Chinese, US generals vow to manage military differences, like South China Sea

While the White House has labelled China a “strategic rival” and the two countries are at odds on a range of fronts from trade to technology, Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe has compared the military-to-military relationship between China and the US a “stabiliser” in bilateral ties.

Also on Friday, General David Goldfein, chief of staff of the US Air Force, said that the job of the US military was to facilitate negotiators.

“Our job at the end of the day is to arm our diplomats to be able to negotiate to a better place, because we provided them [with] credible military options that not only we know we can execute, but just as important, any potential adversary knows that we can credibly execute,” he said.

Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore in June. Photo: AP

“Our job is to make sure they have what they need to be able to negotiate to a better peace.”

Goldfein said that despite the downsizing of the US Air Force over the past decades that “significantly” reduced its number of aircrews and aircraft in Europe, its deployment in the Pacific remained “very steady”, proving that the region was the “number one priority” in the US national defence strategy.

China deploys airship on outpost in disputed South China Sea, satellite firm says

The 2019 Pacific Air Chiefs Symposium in Hawaii was attended by officers from 18 air forces in the region, including other South China Sea claimants – the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.

Also invited were representatives from non-Pacific nations such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, which are covered by the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.

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