American warplanes have approached the Chinese mainland, with one reaching within 76.5km of Shanghai, one of the closest passes in recent years, a media report said on Monday amid deepening tensions between the two nations following the tit-for-tat closure of consulates.
A United States P-8A (Poseidon) anti-submarine plane and an EP-3E reconnaissance plane entered the Taiwan Strait, flying near the coast of Zhejiang and Fujian on Sunday, according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a Peking University think tank. It first tweeted about the operation on Sunday morning, later adding that the reconnaissance plane was flying back after approaching Fujian and the southern part of the Taiwan Strait.
The think-tank tweeted again at night, saying the US Navy P-8A was operating near Shanghai, with the USS Rafael Peralta, a guided-missile destroyer, following a similar route, asking might be a joint operation?, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported. According to a chart from the think tank, the P-8A came within 76.5km of Shanghai, the closest any US planes have come to mainland China in recent years, while the other plane came within 106km of Fujian's southern coast, the report said.
It was the 12th day in a row that US military planes have approached the mainland coast, it said. The US move comes amid an escalation in the diplomatic feud between the two nations.
China on Monday said it took control of the US consulate in Chengdu after it was formally closed as per Beijing's directive in retaliation to America's move to shut down the Chinese diplomatic mission in Houston. Last week, the US government ordered the closure of China's consulate in Houston, Texas, claiming the mission had been involved in a larger Chinese espionage effort using diplomatic facilities around the US.
The closures were the latest in a series of confrontations ranging from areas such as trade and technology to diplomacy and the South China Sea. On Monday, the institute tweeted that "it seems" a US air force RC-135W -- another reconnaissance plane -- had entered Taiwan's airspace and asked if anyone could confirm it. The Taiwanese defence ministry declined to comment on the claims.
But in the late afternoon, the institute tweeted again, saying an EP-3E was conducting close-in reconnaissance of Guangdong less than 100km from the coast. On Thursday, the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative released a scratchy audio recording of what appeared to be a warning from the Chinese navy to a US military plane to change course or be intercepted. The think tank said the audio had been captured by a radio amateur that morning.
It remains unclear which aircraft was involved but it was said to be flying close to the southern Chinese coast, north of the Taiwan Strait. It is unknown whether any subsequent aerial encounter took place. According to the think tank, US air force E-8C surveillance planes have come within 185km or less of the southeast coast of Guangdong province on four separate occasions in the past week.
"At the moment the US military is sending three to five reconnaissance aircraft each day to the South China Sea," the think tank said, adding the US military planes have come unusually close to mainland airspace several times since April, the Post report said. "In the first half of 2020 with much higher frequency, closer distance and more variety of missions -- the US aerial reconnaissance in the South China Sea has entered a new phase," it said.
According to its statistics, US planes made a record 50 sorties over the South China Sea in the first three weeks of July a time when both countries' armed forces were conducting training exercises. The project's director Hu Bo said the frequent encounters between the US and Chinese ships and planes raised the risk of a clash, although he said the chance of this escalating into a large-scale conflict was small.
In 2001, a US navy signals intelligence aircraft collided in mid-air with a Chinese interceptor near Hainan province, killing a Chinese pilot. "Although the US has been trying to decouple with China in other areas, they are still closely connected," the Post quoted Hu as saying.
"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," he said. The Chinese state media has reported that aviation units from a navy brigade are currently undertaking live-fire drills in the South China Sea while a nine-day exercise is also being held off the Leizhou peninsula in Guangdong.
Earlier this month, two US aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups conducted dual carrier operation in the disputed South China Sea amid China's drills. Beijing claims almost all of the 1.3 million square miles South China Sea as its sovereign territory. China has been building military bases on artificial islands in the region also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
This is the first time the two US aircraft carriers visited the area in recent time to challenge China's claim over almost all of the South China Sea.