U.S. Air Force Accused of Trolling China Military During Recon Op

Researchers in Beijing accused the United States Air Force of trolling the Chinese military with an insulting call sign on Tuesday while conducting consecutive reconnaissance missions off northeastern China.

The Peking University-affiliated South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) said overflight operations by an American RC-135S Cobra Ball took the aircraft within 26 nautical miles of China's coastline.

Flight trackers showed the U.S. Air Force plane taking off from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, and conducting close-in reconnaissance in the Yellow Sea, off the city of Qingdao, Shandong. The open source nature of the online trackers means the aircraft's distance from the Chinese coast is difficult to determine with precision.

On September 6, a day after 19 People's Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft violated Taiwan's air defense identification zone, SCSPI tweeted an image of the RC-135S's flight path near China and said the aircraft had adopted the call sign "JUNKY81," which the think tank interpreted as an insult.

The Chinese characters for "8" and "1" appear on official PLA flags and refer to August 1, 1927—the day of the Nanchang Uprising and now regarded as the anniversary of China's armed forces.

"What's more aggressive than its close-in surveillance is perhaps today's callsign 'JUNKY81,' which is probably calling PLA names," SCSPI said of the consecutive U.S. Air Force operations off northeastern China.

The research institute, which tracks U.S. and allied military movements in nearby skies and waters, has documented the uptick in American freedom of navigation and overflight mission in recent years.

In a report in March, the think tank said the U.S. military had "exerted maximum pressure" in the South China Sea in 2020, deploying warships and warplanes to the region while also frequently transiting the Taiwan Strait.

After the U.S. Navy's Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea on September 6, SCSPI said it detected at least five U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and drones operating in the Bashi Channel.

The strategically important passage south of Taiwan and north of the Philippines is among the only international waterways PLA Navy warships can use to reach the Western Pacific, making it a potential chokepoint during wartime.

The channel also offers access from the Pacific to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Analysts say it is one of the areas the PLA will seek to blockade in the event of a conflict involving U.S. forces.

On September 1, China introduced an amendment to its Maritime Traffic Safety Law that requires all ships to report their call sign, current position, destination and cargo while passing through its "territorial sea."

Observers both within and outside China say Beijing could use the regulation to justify control over territorial waters around disputed islands in the East and South China seas—even Taiwan.

The Pentagon said China's sweeping maritime claims "pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas" and to free trade.

U.S. Air Force Conducts Reconnaissance Near China
File photo: A U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. Researchers in Beijing have accused the United States Air Force of trolling the Chinese military. Greg Davis/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images