Assessing China’s Response to U.S. Reconnaissance Flights

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 16

A U-2 Spy Plane

On June 29, 2011, for the first time in a decade, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force (PLAAF) J-11 crossed the center line of the Taiwan Strait in an attempted intercept of a U.S. Air Force (USAF) U-2 reconnaissance aircraft conducting a monitoring mission in international airspace. In response, the Taiwan Air Force scrambled two F-16s and sent them to the area (Taipei Times, July 28; Jane’s Defence Weekly, July 27). Although Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense reportedly did not consider it a provocative act, the incident generated much discussion about Chinese intentions.  An official at Taiwan’s Air Force Command later claimed the crossing was accidental (Central News Agency [Taiwan], August 22), but it remains beneficial to consider possible ramifications of similar activity in the future. U.S. reconnaissance flights are not uncommon, and aggressive intercepts on the part of China are not likely to convince the United States to reduce or stop them. On the contrary, they inadvertently could lead to another mid-air accident like the one that briefly derailed U.S.-China relations in 2001. Given the increasing number of civil aircraft flights through the Taiwan Strait, which exceeded 1.2 million flights in 2010, such intercepts threaten the safety, security, and economic prosperity of the Taiwan Strait and East Asia [1].

Differing Views of International Waters and Airspace

The United States and China have repeatedly articulated key differences in their views of manned and unmanned aircraft flights conducted near China’s borders to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). U.S. reconnaissance flights occur along China’s entire coast. As the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, noted during a press conference on July 25, the United States conducts these missions in international airspace, defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as the airspace beyond 12 nautical miles of a country’s contiguous borders.

China does not accept the U.S. explanation that it has the legal authority to conduct ISR missions anywhere near its borders. Beijing sees these missions as an obstacle to military relations and an encroachment into China’s sovereign territory. At the same time, however, China has stepped up its own ISR capabilities in the East China Sea over the past few years. People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Y-8 surveillance aircraft and JH-7s have flown into Japan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In response, Japanese F-15s have conducted numerous intercepts as they neared the ADIZ (The Telegraph [London], December 30, 2010).

A Dangerous Game

The April 1, 2001 collision between a U.S. Navy (USN) EP-3 and a PLAN J-8 in the South China Sea clearly illustrates the potential for confrontation, not to mention loss of life, when something goes wrong during a seemingly routine mission. At the time, China noted that the United States was sending about 200 reconnaissance flights a year near China’s coast. The Pentagon responded that China was intercepting about one-third of those flights (Agence France Presse [AFP], April 16, 2001). According to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command at the time, Admiral Dennis Blair, when conducting an intercept the Chinese aircraft typically “come up, take a look, report what they see and fly back.” However, in the months leading up to the collision, the intercepts were increasingly aggressive to the point the United States felt they were endangering the safety of Chinese and U.S. aircraft (BBC News, April 5, 2001). Neither country accepted responsibility for the collision, with each side blaming the other.

At the time of the collision, President Bush stated “Reconnaissance flights are a part of a comprehensive national security strategy that helps maintain peace and stability in our world” (Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2001). In response, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman stated “Such flights ‘constitute a grave threat to China’s security’ and China has the right to protect its national sovereignty. Therefore, interceptions are ‘necessary and very reasonable’ and in line with international practice” (People’s Daily, May 8, 2001).

According to an American assigned to the U.S. Embassy in 2001, “The Chinese government views U.S. reconnaissance missions along China’s coast as evidence that the United States sees China as an enemy, or something other than a normal, friendly country.” He also stated that Beijing’s protests ignore their lack of military transparency, military threats aimed at Taiwan, and China’s own reconnaissance operations in the region [2]. China allowed the EP-3 crewmembers to return home on April 11, and the United States resumed reconnaissance flights in May (CNN, May 15, 2001).

Although no similar incidents have been reported since 2001, reconnaissance flights remain a consistent topic of conversation between senior military leaders. When Admiral Mullen visited China in July 2011, the PLA’s Chief of the General Staff, General Chen Bingde, stated during a joint press conference that recent U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft have flown to within only 16 nautical miles of China’s coast, which is close to China’s territorial waters. Furthermore, he stated that it is not necessary for the United States to conduct such surveillance, as it will hinder overall bilateral relations. As such, the United States should reduce and stop such reconnaissance activity (China News, July 11). In a press conference on July 25, Admiral Mullen responded that the United States will not be deterred from flying in international space near China (JCS.mil, July 25).

Airborne Reconnaissance Missions: Nothing New

The United States and Taiwan have a long history of reconnaissance activity over and near China [3]. Since the early 1950s, the USN and USAF operated several types of aircraft near Chinese territory to collect radar and other electronic signals, to intercept communications and to collect aerial debris from nuclear tests.

From 1959 to 1967 the Nationalists flew 100 CIA-sponsored U-2 reconnaissance flights over China [4]. From 1963 to 1967, the PLAAF shot down five of the Nationalist-flown U-2s over the Chinese mainland [5]. During the Vietnam conflict, China also shot down several U.S. reconnaissance aircraft near or over its southern border [6].

Although Sino-U.S. relations improved during the 1980s, the United States continued flying various missions along China’s borders. Following the rise in tensions between China and Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, the United States increased its flights around China’s coastal periphery.

Flight Activity over the Taiwan Strait

Until 1996, the Taiwan Air Force (TAF) basically owned the skies over the Strait, but it still observed the center line, which, in fact, is closer to the mainland coast than to Taiwan. Although the PLAAF routinely reacted to TAF flights over the Strait, the PLAAF’s aircraft flew parallel to the TAF’s aircraft but remained above the mainland coast, not venturing even into the internationally recognized portion of China’s airspace over the Strait [7]. Not until 1996, when Beijing reacted to Taiwan’s first presidential election, did the PLAAF fly its first flights out over the Strait. The PLAAF did not conduct its first flights to the center line until Beijing reacted to President Lee Teng-hui’s “two states” comments in July 1999 (Federal News Service, August 3, 1999).

In November 1998, a TAF Mirage group commander confirmed that there was a tacit agreement between the two air forces that “we leave when you come, and we come when you leave” (Taipei Tzu-Li Wan-Pao, November 26, 1998).

Over the past decade, the PLAAF has increased its flights to the center line, such that they are now considered “routine.” For example, Taiwan’s 2006 National Defense Report reported the number of PLAAF flights in the Strait from 1998 (400) through 2005 (1,700). Unfortunately, the figure does not have data for the number of TAF flights, nor have subsequent reports provided any updated data.

Military aircraft flights make up only a small portion of the air traffic over the Strait. Civil aircraft flights have increased exponentially since direct charter flights across the Strait began in 2003. New agreements signed in 2007 increased the number of weekly flights from Taiwan to various locations in China to 370, and, in 2011, they increased again to 558 (China Post, July 26). Together with international air traffic, the number of civil aircraft flights through the Strait exceeded 1.2 million in 2010. This is a stark increase from the 400,000 total flights of 1999, and is a significant amount of traffic given the 100-mile width of the Strait (China News Agency, August 10, 1999).

Although no PLAAF aircraft have reportedly crossed the center line between the EP-3/J-8 collision in 2001 and the June 29 incident, Beijing and Taipei previously have traded accusations about each other’s fighters approaching the line. These accusations typically coincide with significant or controversial political events in Taiwan, such as comments or activities by Taiwan’s presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. In the past, both sides have apparently provided information officially and unofficially to the media to escalate the situation and influence public opinion. One apparent reason such activity is not provided to the press on a regular basis is that, if reported too often, it becomes routine and the public might lose interest. By publicizing certain situations, Taipei hopes to move U.S. and regional perceptions against China. Beijing, on the other hand, wants to keep pressure on Taiwan from moving toward independence. Equally important, Beijing also wants to pressure the United States to discontinue foreign military sales to Taiwan.

The June 29, 2011 Incident

The U-2 flight on June 29 was nothing out of the ordinary to warrant the change in Chinese response. According to Taiwanese military sources, the incident occurred while the U-2 was flying a mission along China’s coast that began at the USAF’s Osan Air Base in South Korea, passed south through the Taiwan Strait, and then flew back north to the USAF’s Kadena Air Base in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. The USAF reportedly informed Taiwan’s military in advance of the monitoring mission, whose route passed through Taiwan’s ADIZ (United Daily News, July 25). A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command confirmed that the U-2 was on a routine mission in the East China Sea, and that these types of missions in general are conducted in international airspace. Although the U-2’s altitude was not identified, they normally fly at 70,000 feet (Jane’s Defence Weekly, July 27).

According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense, two PLAAF aircraft shadowed the U-2 in international airspace over the Strait (Jane’s Defence Weekly, July 27). When one of the Chinese aircraft crossed the center line, the TAF scrambled two F-16s in response. As the F-16s approached the center line, the Chinese aircraft departed. The Ministry of Defense stated it did not consider the incident as provocative (AFP, July 25). According to one news report, officials reported that the U-2 aborted its flight upon being alerted to the J-11 interceptors (Washington Times, July 25).

During the July 25 press conference, Admiral Mullen indicated that in addition to not being deterred from flying in international airspace near China, U.S. reconnaissance flights are important, so the United States should be careful about how it flies them and China should be careful about how it intercepts them.

On July 27, China Daily stated it is the U.S. military’s dangerous war games around China’s air and maritime territory that triggered China’s legitimate response. Furthermore, the onus is on the United States to avoid such provocations, which can and will cause grave damage to relations between the two countries. Finally, China welcomes the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region for its constructive role in maintaining regional stability, but will not compromise on issues relating to its territorial integrity.

Conclusions

Whether the PLAAF aircraft intentionally crossed the center line on June 29 or not, the incident definitely received media attention. How the PLAAF and Naval Aviation respond to future reconnaissance flights will answer any questions about Beijing’s intent and motivation.

The United States and Taiwan have a long history of conducting reconnaissance flights near China’s borders, and the United States is not likely to cease these flights in the near future. Although China does not approve, Beijing should exercise restraint when conveying that disapproval. While conducting aggressive intercepts and espousing hard-line rhetoric may play well at home, these actions do little to reassure the United States and the rest of Asia of China’s peaceful intentions in the region or that further reconnaissance missions are unnecessary, especially as China’s military continues to remain opaque about its weapons acquisitions and training. As the number of civil aircraft flights increases through the Strait, the possibility of an inadvertent mid-air accident occurring when military fighters react to each other at the center line also increases.  In order to avoid any miscalculation, and to ensure the safety of all aircraft transiting the Strait, the United States, China and Taiwan must be careful about how they conduct their military missions in the Strait.

Notes 

  1. According to correspondence in July 2001 with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington, DC, a total of 1,205,529 civil aircraft transited the Taiwan Strait in 2010.
  2. John Keefe, “Anatomy of the EP-3 Incident, April 2001,” The CNA Corporation, January 2002.
  3. For a more detailed account, see Kenneth W. Allen, “Air Force Deterrence and Escalation Calculations for a Taiwan Strait Conflict: China, Taiwan, and the United States,” in Michael D. Swaine, Andrew N.D. Yang, and Evan S. Medeiros, eds., Assessing the Threat: The Chinese Military and Taiwan’s Security, Washington, DC, 2007, pp. 153–184.
  4. http://area51specialprojects.com/u2_blackcat_taiwan.html
  5. Luo Xionghuai, Zhongguo kongjun jishi [Chronicle of China’s Air Force], Beijing: Central Compilation & Translation Press, February 2006, Chapter 14, pp. 271–298.
  6. Hua Qiang, Xi Jirong, Meng Qinglong, eds., Zhongguo kongjun bainian shi [China’s Air Force: One Hundred Years of History], Shanghai: People’s Press, January 2006, p. 228.
  7. Until the late 1990s, the PLAAF did not fly over water anywhere along China’s coast. That mission was the responsibility of PLA Naval Aviation. Today, PLAAF aircraft fly over water in each of the PLA Navy’s three fleet areas of operation.