The United States military’s close-in reconnaissance of China is an old problem in Sino-US relations, but new developments surrounding it are permeated with worrisome dangers, which merit close attention by both sides. Since last October, there have been more news reports and comments about what the US military says are “normal operations” by reconnaissance planes or naval vessels including aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, followed or tracked by Chinese warships and jet fighters. US military planes and naval vessels are often given warnings or warned off.
What worries the US military is the claimed short distance between the ships or planes of both sides when they have encounters in a “polite but unsafe manner”. However, the Chinese side believes that its planes and ships are operating professionally and in a safe manner. It is demanding that the US military stop all its close-in reconnaissance of China in order to eliminate the root cause of any possible conflicts. This profound dispute carries great weight in Sino-US relations and should be managed properly and immediately in order to avoid any accidental misfortunes.
First, the US military’s close-in reconnaissance operations challenge or encroach upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In public statements, the US often says that it takes no position on the territorial disputes between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and between China and the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries in the South China Sea. But in military operations, the US reconnaissance and other types of planes often fly over China’s airspace over the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) or territorial waters, and its naval vessels cruise into China’s EEZ or territorial waters. What complicates the dispute is the different understanding or interpretation of EEZ and territorial waters by the two countries.
Another even more difficult issue is the lack of common ground as to what the US military planes and naval vessels can do or cannot do in those flights and cruises in accordance with international norms or established rules. In essence, the problem lies in the fact that the US does not respect, in its deeds, China’s sovereignty in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, though it refrains from saying so publically. Therefore, the two countries cannot see eye to eye on the exact definition or location of so-called high seas or international airspace in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Under such circumstances, the US military’s close-in reconnaissance of China has long been an irritant in Sino-US relations.
Second, such reconnaissance seriously damages the mutual strategic trust between the two countries. Generally speaking, the reconnaissance of China has much to do with its China policy, and in a certain sense, it serves as a kind of a barometer of its attitude towards China. A simple observation of the changes of the US military close-in reconnaissance operations of China in the last 60 years or more shows the point. During the 22 years or so between 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was born and 1972 when US President Richard Nixon visited China, the US reconnaissance of China was very intense as the US adopted a hostile policy towards China. Quite a number of US reconnaissance planes were shot down by Chinese missiles. But for 19 years after the visit to China by President Nixon, the US military reconnaissance of China virtually came to a stop as the US pursued a policy of working with China against the Soviet Union. It is interesting to note that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, especially when China’s rise has gained momentum in the last 10 or 20 years, the US military close-in reconnaissance operations were resumed and gradually intensified. It is true that the recent accelerated close-in reconnaissance of China coincides with the US strategy of rebalance in Asia, and in fact it serves as evidence that its strategy of rebalance in Asia is directed at China, though the US officially denies it on public occasions.
Third, accidents could be hardly be avoided when the US persists in carrying out high frequency close-in reconnaissance operations. As China is making good progress in the research and manufacture of sophisticated military equipment and weapons, as well as in the combat readiness drills and exercises, the desire of the US military to gather China’s military intelligence has grown stronger than ever before. It is most unlikely that the US would stop altogether its military close-in reconnaissance of China in the near future. In the meantime, the Chinese military will continue to spot, follow or track US reconnaissance planes and ships in the distance as it sees proper. It is believed that it would take necessary defensive measures when the US reconnaissance planes and ships threaten its security or encroach upon China’s sovereignty. Though both sides are trying to follow the rules stipulated in the China-US Memorandum of Understanding on Air and Maritime Encounters, nobody can guarantee that there would be no accidents or mistakes when the two sides have a number of serious maritime disputes unresolved.
The worst scenario would be that a careless mistake by one side is interpreted as an intentional move by another, with simultaneous or automatic retaliation. The incident of the 2001 plane collision over the South China Sea should never be repeated, nor should the downing of US reconnaissance planes in the 1950s and 1960s. In order to avoid accidents and to promote the building of a new type of military relationship between the two countries, the two sides should start serious talks on the issue for a mutually acceptable solution. As a first step, the US military should limit its reconnaissance operations to the international airspace and high seas that both sides recognize.