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South China Sea warning: Beijing accuses US of flying spy planes posing as airliners

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Security officials in Beijing claim the US has carried out at least 100 such operations this year alone, the latest between September 8 and 10. They said several US Air Force RC-135 aircraft had used identification codes assigned to Malaysian civilian aircraft while circling international airspace between Hainan and the Paracel Islands. The officials said the spy planes and taken off from US airbases on Okinawa and Guam.

The US may not only be violating international norms but setting the stage for a major incident

Mark J. Valencia

General Kenneth Wilsbach, head of Pacific Air Forces, responded to the allegations by saying: “I know we follow the rules for international airspace.”

All planes registered with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) are assigned a unique six-digit code which is automatically transmitted by their transponders during communications with air traffic control radar.

Maritime policy expert Mark J. Valencia said US Air Force Boeing RC-135W and E-8C intelligence collection planes have frames similar to the Boeing 707-200 civilian airliner and sometimes followed commercial routes.

Writing in the South China Morning Post, he said: “Their identification code is what helps to distinguish them on remote sensors.

“When China spots a spy plane, its military assets probably go silent. But with a ‘false flag’, the spy plane may deceive them into continuing activity and communications can be monitored.

“Under international norms, civilian aircraft should not be shot. The US may be betting on this, ironically taking advantage of China’s adherence to international norms.”

Dr Valencia said using a false civilian cover for spy planes may not be illegal but warned it was dangerous and risked a major international incident.

He said: “The world needs a full explanation of these practices and how they do not infringe upon international laws and norms.

“Until then, US demands that China uphold the international order ring hollow.

“Indeed, the US may not only be violating international norms but also setting the stage for a major international incident.”

US military chiefs admitted sending spy planes into a no-fly zone over Chinese live-fire military drills in the disputed South China Sea last month.

In response, China lodged “stern representations” with Washington.

Relations between the two superpowers have gone from bad to worse in recent months on a wide variety of issues including the treatment of Taiwan, the coronavirus pandemic, trade deals and alleged human rights abuses.

Donald Trump repeated his claim that China was to blame for COVID-19 during this week’s presidential debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden.

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China has been holding frequent military activities near Chinese-claimed Taiwan and has taken the unusual step of declaring that such drills are directed at Taiwan.

The South China Sea is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with trillions of dollars’ worth of trade passing through it each year.

Some analysts estimate China lays claim to as much as 90 percent of the South China Sea, including a number of islands and reefs.

Washington has warned China’s militarisation of the areas threatens free trade.

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