US stepping up operations in South China Sea, researchers say

British, Japanese and US warships pictured during a carrier group exercise in the Philippine Sea.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post/Handout

The United States has stepped up its military operations in the disputed South China Sea this year, according to new research from China.

The Beijing-based South China Sea Probing Initiative said the US military conducted 52 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea in October.

The number of reconnaissance flights in October was down from the 62 recorded in September, but the think tank said other US military operations in the South China Sea were intensifying.

It said on Tuesday (Nov 2) the scale of the operations had grown after the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group and the British carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth conducted a series of exercises last month, adding that the American carrier group had entered the area nine times this year.

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Wu Shicun, president of China‘s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the US has made more than 500 reconnaissance flight over the South China Sea this year — a total that rises to over 2,000 when operations over the Yellow and East China Seas are added.

Last year it carried out just under 1,000 flights, according to the South China Sea Probing Initiative.

Wu said the risk of accidents between China and the US was increasing, calling on both sides to speed up discussions about a code of conduct.

Wu recalled the 2001 incident when a US reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the Americans to land on Hainan island.

“If there is another collision in the South China Sea, just like what happened in 2001, it would be catastrophic given China‘s current military and national strength,” Wu told an international forum on Wednesday.

In addition to the Carl Vinson carrier strike group, the South China Sea Probing Initiative said the US has sent three other carrier strike groups – the Theodore Roosevelt, Nimitz and Ronald Reagan – to the South China Sea this year.

Together with two amphibious assault vessels, the USS Makin Island and USS Essex, US navy vessels crossed the South China Sea 11 times this year, the think tank said.

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It said the US also deployed B-52H and B-1B bombers over the disputed waters 14 times this year, along with 11 nuclear submarines, including the USS Connecticut which was recently damaged in a collision .

“US military deployment over the South China Sea has been increasing since 2009. Such deployment intensified this year compared with last year,” Hu Bo, director of the think tank, told state broadcaster CCTV as saying.

The confrontations between China and the US over the South China Sea has been going on for years. Tensions between the two nations have escalated, with Beijing protesting as the US teamed up with allies including Britain, Germany and Canada to increase their military presence over the South China Sea.

Washington said those operations are necessary to ensure navigational freedom in the disputed waters, but Beijing said they are a violation of its sovereignty.

Wu said as both China and the US have used more submarines and underwater drones, it is important to include those weapons in the code for unplanned encounters at sea.

“This is an urgent need to establish rules that include air, surface, and underwater, including conventional submarines, nuclear submarines, and unmanned submarines, otherwise there will be accidents in the South China Sea,” he said.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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