Tensions between the US and China have escalated over recent weeks with both states increasing military powers in the disputed region. But now a Chinese think tank claims the US are undertaking surveillance missions in the region.
According to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) – which operates out of Peking University – three US warplanes flew over the Bashi Channel and South China today (June 25).
In a tweet, the organisation said: “On the morning of June 25, US P-8A and RC-135 are conducting reconnaissance in the South China Sea, staying focused on the waters east of Bashi Channel, meanwhile, a C-17A Globemaster III is flying over the South China Sea.”
The P8-A Poseidon is an aircraft designed for anti-submarine warfare and is said to have flown towards the Pratas Islands, which are owned by Taiwan, before flying close to mainland China.
The other two planes have reportedly been sighted in the region since mid-June.
Three US Air Force ships spotted by China
Chinese think tank images show US plane routes
Relations between the US and China have also become strained over recent weeks due to military action in the region.
Earlier this week, the US Navy and the Japanese military conducted bilateral exercises while sailing together in the South China Sea.
The USS Gabrielle Giffords and Japan’s JS Kashim and Shimayuki met at sea on June 23 where they reportedly practiced and enhanced bilateral interoperability between the two navies.
Last month, Independence-class US Navy littoral combat ships were spotted patrolling the much-disputed region.
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US warship in the South China Sea region
The US Air Force and Marines conducted training exercises in the area with three submarines joining ships and aircrafts in the nearby Philippine Sea.
The actions are thought to be a reaction to Chinese harassment of ships drilling for resources in nearby waters.
Back in April, three US ships joined the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta and sailed to the region to demonstrate a commitment to keeping the sea open.
The South China Sea region is a highly contested territory where it faces rival ownership claims from China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
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Although China is reportedly years away from controlling the highly disputed region, Taiwanese officials recently warned of the threat posed by the Chinese air defence identification zone (ADIZ). Beijing is working to establish a framework to assert control.
Military news site US Navy Institute (USNI) reported China hinted at an ADIZ over the South China Sea for years.
However, despite other nations declaring ADIZ’s, experts believe China is not ready to declare a zone over the region.
Diplomatic relations between the nations, which have laid claim to the islands, are already extremely strained and all nations have extended their military arms.
Chinese think tank mapped the flight path
This week, Taiwan deployed marines to the Pratas Islands amid reports China will conduct drills in the area.
According to a Ministry of National Defense (MND) official, a number of Taiwanese marines have been deployed to the region as a training mission. China is reportedly planning large-scale beach landing exercises on the islands.
The source told Focus Taiwan the mission is aimed at strengthening the defence capabilities as well as improving logistical and equipment maintenance skills of the Taiwanese Coast Guard officers.
Taiwan warship on the Pratas Islands
However, no more information about the number of marines deployed or how long they will stay were revealed.
The recent construction of bunkers on some of the atolls point to China preparing to “protection against air or missile strikes”, raising the prospect of a conflict which could spark World War 3.
The islands and surrounding reefs have been the subject of a bitter and long-running territorial dispute, with China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines all laying claim to parts of the archipelago.