U.S. Military Acknowledges Monitoring China Drills After Being Warned 'to Immediately Stop'

The U.S. military has acknowledged to Newsweek that it surveilled recent drills by the Chinese armed forces in the disputed South China Sea, the second such case in as many days of the Pentagon watching the People's Liberation Army conduct maneuvers designed to deter such foreign moves.

As China conducted drills announced Friday and set to run through Monday in the South China Sea, the Beijing-based South China Sea Probing Initiative think tank reported Wednesday that a U.S. Air Force RC-135S reconnaissance plane flew back and forth across the Bashi Channel. The sensitive waterway separates the Philippines from Taiwan, a self-ruling and U.S.-supported island that is the subject of a territorial dispute with China, as are the surrounding waters of the South China Sea.

But despite Chinese protests, the U.S. continues to enforce its presence in the strategic region.

"The U.S. Navy has 38 ships underway today in the Indo-Pacific region, including the South China Sea," Navy spokesperson Captain John Gay told Newsweek. "We continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international laws allows to demonstrate our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and reassure allies and partners."

Gay made it clear that the U.S. Navy is watching.

"Our forces continuously monitor exercises throughout the region to include the recent PLA exercise," Gay said. "Our naval forces remain ready to respond to any threats to our allies and partners throughout the region."

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An F/A-18E assigned to the “Diamondbacks” of Strike Fighter Squadron 102 launches off the flight deck of aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the Navy's only forward-deployed warship of its kind, while conducting operations in the South China Sea, August 14. The U.S. Navy says the USS Ronald Reagan "provides a combat-ready force that protects and defends the United States, as well the collective maritime interests of its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region," but Beijing sees a challenge to Chinese sovereignty in the region. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Tarleton/Commander, Task Force 70/Carrier Strike Group 5/U.S. Navy

The U.S. flyover was featured in Chinese state-affiliated outlets such as the ruling Communist Party's Global Times, which cited experts suggesting the move could be linked to potential ballistic missile launches. They criticized the move, especially given the events of the day before, when the Chinese military accused the U.S. of flying a U-2 spy plane over a no-fly zone near another set of drills conducted by the PLA's Northern Theater Command.

The Chinese military took public offense at the U.S. reconnaissance flights.

"The move seriously violated the code of conduct for the safety of air and maritime encounters between China and the U.S., as well as related international norms," Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian warned Tuesday, "and could have easily caused misunderstanding and misjudgment, or even led to an air and maritime accident."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian echoed these same points Wednesday at a press conference in Beijing.

"The trespass severely affected China's normal exercises and training activities," Zhao Lijian said, and he called on the U.S. "to immediately stop such provocative moves and take real actions to uphold regional peace and stability."

The South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) also weighed in on the incident, telling Newsweek what the U.S. did was "highly provocative" and might "lead to accidents."

The think tank, led by Chinese scholars, experts and former military personnel, has been at the forefront of news regarding U.S. military activity in the South China Sea, providing regular updates on the Pentagon's air and sea movements. Whereas the U.S. has justified its intensified deployments as a measure to enforce the flow of international travel in waters claimed by Beijing, the group defends China's actions as safeguarding the country's sovereignty amid a worsening in bilateral ties.

"China's military exercises are held on its doorstep, in response to U.S. long-term and high-frequency military provocations against China," the SCSPI told Newsweek. "To a large degree, PLA operations are to deter U.S. increasing military activity and the anti-China rhetoric of some US officials, as well as keeping alert."

The SCSPI asked how America would feel if China turned the tables.

"Consider if China sent thousands of reconnaissance aircraft sorties to the East and West coasts of the United States every year," the monitor asked, "and accused the U.S. military of managing the situation unprofessionally. How would the White House, the Pentagon and the U.S public react?"

In Washington, however, President Donald Trump's administration has officially rejected China's expansive claims to the South China Sea, a major route for commercial traffic and host to potentially trillions of dollars worth of untapped oil and gas reserves. In a first, the U.S. rolled out sanctions Wednesday against Chinese companies accused of being complicit in "malign activities in the South China Sea."

"Beijing has pursued environmentally destructive land reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts," a State Department official told an on-background briefing Wednesday. "This has done irreparable damage to coral reefs. They have also used these platforms in the South China Sea as platforms of coercion against their neighbors, expanding the reach of PRC maritime militia and civilian law enforcement vessels, often backed by the Chinese military, to intimidate Southeast Asian claimants from accessing offshore resources."

Even as relations between Beijing and Washington deteriorate, however, the official said there remained a path forward for improving cooperation between the world's top two economies.

"We try to have as constructive a relationship as possible to include in the trade space and otherwise," the State Department official said, "and we wish that Beijing would improve its conduct in the South China Sea and in many other areas, and that would make the relations all the more constructive."

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A graphic provided by Statista shows the military imbalance between the forces of China and Taiwan as of 2018. U.S. Department of Defense

The above graphic was provided by Statista.