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Far fewer US surveillance missions were flown over the South China Sea in September compared with August, according to a Beijing-based think tank. Photo: US Navy/Boeing Aircraft/AFP

US military surveillance in South China Sea scaled back after spike in tensions across Taiwan Strait

  • Beijing-based think tank says US military conducted just over half as many surveillance missions in September compared with August
  • Fewer missions could signal Washington needs Beijing’s help elsewhere, expert says
The number of US surveillance sorties in September decreased by around half compared with August, according to the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a Beijing-based think tank.

Monthly records from the SCSPI show that land-based US reconnaissance aircraft made 28 sorties during September, down from 46 in August, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

The think tank used ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) technology to track the planes based on broadcasts from their electronic equipment.

Pelosi was the most senior US official to visi the self-ruled island since former speaker Newt Gingrich travelled to Taipei in 1997.
Several days of Chinese military drills encircling the island and ballistic missile launches after Pelosi’s visit prompted US countermeasures that included positioning the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group closer to Taiwan.

August 5 saw the highest number of US sorties of the month – a day after China test-fired 11 missiles. Four surveillance aircraft, including three P-8As and one RC-135V, were deployed, according to the SCSPI.


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The 46 US surveillance sorties in August compare with a total of 67 sorties in July. The SCSPI said the higher number of missions that month was related to operations carried out in the region by the destroyer USS Benfold and the USS Ronald Reagan.


In July 2021, the US conducted 27 surveillance sorties in the region, down 60 per cent from the same period in 2020, possibly due to the summer typhoon season, the SCSPI said.

Zhang Mingliang, a Jinan University professor who specialises in South China Sea studies, said the lower frequency of US sorties last month was probably not due to typhoons, since US military aircraft are capable of flying in adverse weather.

He said the smaller number of missions was more likely due to less provocation or fewer perceived threats in the region.

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“[The US military] responds after being provoked … it adjusts its frequency of activities based on its adversary’s frequency of activities,” he said.
Zhang said another possible reason for the reduced number of sorties could be that the US has been attempting to de-escalate tensions, since diplomatic ties with Beijing have deteriorated following Pelosi’s visit.

“When the US needs to seek cooperation with China on other areas, it’s possible that it will reduce these kinds of [military] activities. For example, on topics like Ukraine, Europe, and climate change, it may want to seek cooperation.”

After holding talks on both Ukraine and Taiwan during last month’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed to continue talking.


At the UN, Wang also stressed Beijing’s determination to seek reunification with Taiwan and to oppose any external interference.


Taiwan showcases fighter jets as mainland China’s war games continue following Pelosi visit

Taiwan showcases fighter jets as mainland China’s war games continue following Pelosi visit
The frequency of military encounters between the US and China in the South China Sea seems to have decreased in September despite escalating tensions following Pelosi’s visit, while the US continues what it calls routine navigation in the region.

On September 21, US and Canadian warships – the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Vancouver – sailed through the Taiwan Strait while being tracked by the Chinese military.

One RC-135V surveillance aircraft was deployed on the same day, according to the SCSPI report.