This past weekend, the new commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet took part in a multi-hour surveillance flight over the disputed South China Sea. While the U.S. claimed that the flight was not meant to be anything more than a test of the capabilities of a new plane, the Chinese see the participation of such a high ranking military official in the flight as something more. Though China claims most of the South China Sea as its own, the U.S. contends that its surveillance flights are in fact taking place over international airspace and are legal. All indications right now point towards increasing surveillance flights by the U.S. over the disputed sea as tensions between China and other claimant countries rise.

U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Angers China

The Flight

On Saturday July 18th, Admiral Scott Swift caused a bit of controversy when he joined a seven-hour surveillance flight over the disputed South China Sea. It was claimed that Swift wanted to witness the capabilities of the plane he flew on, the new P-8A Poseidon. Captain Charlie Brown, a public affairs officer attached to the Pacific Fleet said Swift “was pleased with the capabilities of the Poseidon.” Swift responded when asked about the flight by reporters in Tokyo, “We want to reassure those in the region, who ask to be reassured about the U.S. presence, of the fact that it will be sustained here.”

Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin applauded Swift taking part in the flight saying, “Militarily, we are nothing against China…That’s why we have been asking our allies to assist us.” The Philippines are currently embroiled in the South China Sea dispute with China and are taking part in a case in The Hague to get an international court the arbitrate the dispute.

Admiral Swift relieved Admiral Harry Harris Jr. as commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on May 27th. Swift formerly was commander of the 7th Fleet and most recently, Director of Navy Staff. The P-8A Poseidon Swift flew on is set to replace the aging P-3 Orion which is the current mainstay of U.S. aviation based naval surveillance. The U.S. has termed the flight Swift took part in as routine. Such surveillance flight are becoming normal as China’s activities in the South China Sea such as island-building attract increased attention and unease from countries in the region. What is not routine is having such a senior commander join a surveillance flight.

Swift has recently wrapped up a three-country tour in East Asia as he assumes his new post. After a visit to Manila to meet with senior Philippine defense officials, he took part in the flight which was followed by a trip to South Korea. He arrived in Japan on Tuesday before he returns to Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii. In Tokyo, Swift commented that surveillance flights will continue to take place. Swift stated, “Where there are disputed claims, we don’t take a position… But we will continue to exercise the rights of the United States and any nation to conduct operations in international waters.”

Response from Beijing

Beijing though has protested this flight. In a statement from China’s Defense Ministry, “For a long time, U.S. military ships and aircraft have carried out frequent, widespread, and up-close surveillance of China, seriously harming bilateral mutual trust and China’s security interests, which could easily cause an accident at sea or in the air.”

Wang Xiaopeng, a maritime border expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the state-owned Global Times,”The surveillance is a signal that the U.S. has grown increasingly keen on pushing forward its strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific, featuring a more in-depth intervention in the South China Sea.” Such condemnations from China are nothing new.

Potential for Danger

Accidents and near-accidents have occurred in the past when forces from both the U.S. and China came into close proximity of each other. In April 2001, a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane was intercepted by two Chinese fighters over international airspace in the South China Sea. One of the fighters though collided with the EP-3 and crashed while the damage to the U.S. plane forced it to make an emergency landing at a Chinese military airfield on Hainan Island. What resulted was a diplomatic nightmare where it took over a week to get the crew of the EP-3 released and even longer to receive back the aircraft.

Last August saw a Chinese J-11 fighter harassed a U.S. P-8A about 135 miles east of Hainan Island over international airspace forcing the P-8A to take evasive maneuvers. This event sparked outrage in Washington over the unnecessary and dangerous aggressiveness of the Chinese plane. Similar incidents have happened between Japanese and Chinese aircraft as well.

More recently and more typical of aerial encounters  was the event this May when the Chinese navy issued eight warnings to a U.S. P8-A conducting surveillance flights over the South China Sea. Arguing that the flight took place in international airspace, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in response that the U.S. would fly and sail wherever international law allowed.

The U.S. has repeatedly indicated that the surveillance flights will continue. Recently, Japan has indicated a willingness to take part in them as well as its interest in the South China Sea grows. Beijing is not pleased by any of this and is very secretive of its activities in the South China Sea. While China claims that its island building is to support the construction of facilities that will benefit mariners, China doesn’t want anyone to visually inspect the islands. The military purpose of them is clear as China is expanding its presence in the South China Sea so to better control its claims there. While surveillance flights such as the one Admiral Swift took part in are risky, they are necessary to checking China’s activity in the region.