The number of US reconnaissance aircraft spotted in the disputed South China Sea fell by a third in August, distracted by operations around Taiwan, according to a Beijing-based think tank. In a Twitter post on Friday, the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) said land-based US military reconnaissance aircraft made 46 sorties over the South China Sea in August, down from 67 in July. Based on data from a flight-tracking system known as ADS-B, SCSPI said six types of aircraft were spotted in the area during August, including ground-tracking E-8Cs and RC-135V signals-gathering planes. The July figure was higher than the number reported for June, probably because of activities associated with the USS Benfold destroyer and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, the think tank said in an earlier post. SCSPI director Hu Bo said the main reason for the decrease in US aircraft in the South China Sea in August was the deployment of reconnaissance planes around Taiwan during PLA drills around the island. “During [the PLA’s] exercises, US aircraft made five sorties around Taiwan every day to gather intelligence,” Hu said. The People’s Liberation Army conducted unprecedented massive drills around the island in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-ruled island early last month. Beijing sees the self-governed island as part of its territory and has never ruled out the use of force to take control of it. While most countries, including the US, do not recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state, Washington is opposed to any attempt to take the island by force. The PLA said it sent more than 100 of its warplanes around the island on the first day of the drills, and fired missiles and rockets around Taiwan. The PLA repeatedly crossed the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait, which both Beijing and Taipei had long abided by. In all, PLA aircraft made 446 sorties into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone during August, taking the total so far this year to 1,098. That is already above the 972 Taiwan reported for 2021, according to a database compiled by US-based security analysts Gerald Brown and Ben Lewis. According to Taiwan News, Taiwanese aviation enthusiasts recorded a tense exchange between a US military plane and a PLA aircraft on Sunday. According to the report, a PLA pilot warned the US aircraft that it was “approaching my airspace” and it should “leave immediately, or I will intercept”. The US pilot replied, saying the plane was “conducting lawful military activities in international airspace”. The US military has also been sending aircraft and ships through the Taiwan Strait, often provoking aggressive radio warnings from the mainland, the report said. Last Sunday, 23 PLA Air Force aircraft and one US military plane were recorded entering Taiwan’s air defence zone. Two Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers, the USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville, also steamed through the Taiwan Strait that day.