U.S. Spy Plane Spotted in Chinese Airspace Amid Tensions Between Countries

A United States Air Force spy plane came within 51 nautical miles of China's east coast as it passed through Beijing's air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on Thursday, flight tracking data showed.

The U-2A reconnaissance aircraft, nicknamed "Dragon Lady," took off from Seoul, South Korea, and made a sortie into the Taiwan Strait, according to the South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Beijing think tank.

The Cold War–era Lockheed spy plane traveled the length of the East China Sea ADIZ before turning back roughly 51 nautical miles from the eastern Chinese province of Fujian and about 70 nautical miles off Taiwan's northwest coast.

Data from the think tank suggests it was the closest reconnaissance flight in the Taiwan Strait by an official U.S. military aircraft since October, with Washington keen to ward off any attempts by China to act militarily against the self-ruled island of Taiwan.

USAF U-2A (#AE0961) is operating over the #EastChinaSea, Dec 10.

Earlier in August, a U-2 once flew into a previously declared no-fly zone, where PLA was conducting live-fire military exercise. pic.twitter.com/QgmkAM1cAv

— SCS Probing Initiative (@SCS_PI) December 10, 2020

Foreign aircraft are expected to notify aviation authorities when entering a country's ADIZ, but the zones, although widely used, are not internationally regulated.

Last month, flight trackers spotted two U.S. Air Force heavy bombers taking off from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam and making a sortie into China's East China Sea ADIZ. This reportedly elicited a response from a pair of People's Liberation Army (PLA) interceptor jets.

The United States has nearly doubled its number of spy plane missions near China since 2009, the South China Sea Probing Initiative told Newsweek in October. The Air Force is now flying more than 1,500 sorties a year to the South China Sea, while the Navy is recording 1,000 ship days in the region over the same period.

In a November report, the think tank said the U.S. military was disguising its reconnaissance missions by flying civilian aircraft, making more than 160 sorties into the Yellow Sea, as well as the contested waters of the East and South China seas between March and November.

The increased activity comes at a time of rising military tension between China and Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a breakaway province destined one day to be reunited with the mainland.

But Taiwan, under the leadership of President Tsai Ing-wen, has slipped further away from Beijing's influence. A decreasing minority of residents still identify as "Chinese" over "Taiwanese," according to a survey conducted this summer by National Chengchi University's Election Study Center in Taipei.

Democratic Taiwan's new-found confidence has been aided by the United States, particularly since 2016, when Tsai took office and President Donald Trump was elected.

Since Tsai won re-election in January this year, Beijing has responded with anger and condemnation as the Trump administration approved defensive arms sales to Taiwan—11 packages in total since Trump's inauguration in 2017—and then sanctioned two U.S. cabinet-level visits to Taipei in August and September.

While PLA aerial and naval drills in the Taiwan Strait have been ongoing for several months, by October Chinese warplanes had already broken the record for the most incursions into Taiwanese airspace since 1990, the island's defense minister said at the time.

Last Friday, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency revealed in its annual report that Taipei was the largest recipient of foreign military sales in the 2020 fiscal year, purchasing some $11.8 billion of goods.

President Tsai and her foreign affairs ministry have expressed confidence that similar support will continue under President-elect Joe Biden and his cabinet.

USAF U-2 Spy Planes
A U.S. Air Force U-2 spy plane. USAF/Getty Images