U.S. Spy Plane Watches Chinese Troops Gathering for South China Sea Drills

Plane spotters monitoring the skies around China via open-source software said an American reconnaissance aircraft went on a lengthy intelligence-gathering mission off the Chinese coast on Tuesday.

Online flight trackers recorded the apparent movements of a U.S. Air Force plane that probed the South China Sea ahead of a series of intensive live-fire exercises involving the People's Liberation Army. A Chinese state media pundit said the PLA drills were likely in preparation for a conflict with the United States over the island of Taiwan.

According to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a Peking University think tank tracking U.S. military movements, the RC-135W Rivet Joint craft operated off China's southern provinces of Guangdong and Hainan before passing the Paracel Islands—controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam.

Public flight data showed the American spy plane taking off from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa before entering the South China Sea via the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan. On the same day, Taiwan reported five PLA warplanes operating southwest of the island, in what could have been attempts by the Chinese military to monitor the U.S. aircraft.

The Chinese think tank said American reconnaissance aircraft conducted a record 94 sorties in the South China Sea last month.

Tuesday's Air Force intelligence-gathering operation came a day after the Chinese maritime authorities announced no-go zones for three military exercises taking place off Hainan, in the South China Sea. They were scheduled to begin on Wednesday with live-fire drills in the waters northeast of the island province, according to the China Maritime Safety Administration.

Separate exercises were announced for Wednesday through Friday and for Thursday through Friday, southwest and northwest of Hainan respectively, said notices issued by the maritime authorities of Sanya and Yangpu.

The Global Times, a state-owned tabloid published by the Chinese Communist Party newspaper People's Daily, said the PLA drills would likely involve joint-operations training of different military branches.

It quoted one commentator as saying the PLA was possibly using Hainan to simulate operations to capture Taiwan. However, the two islands differ in size, shape and terrain.

Chinese military exercises would nonetheless "have the island of Taiwan in mind" and seek to "deter potential interferences by foreign forces," the analyst told the tabloid. This was a reference to potential, even likely, military assistance from the U.S. and its treaty ally Japan.

The People's Republic of China, founded in 1949 by Mao Zedong, has never governed Taiwan. However, Beijing asserts historical claims over the island's sovereignty. Taiwan says it is already an independent country called the Republic of China and ruled under its constitution.

Beijing has never renounced the option of using force to seize the island. Washington, Taipei's strongest international backer, insists differences across the Taiwan Strait must be resolved by peaceful means and, in recent years in particular, in accordance with the wishes of the Taiwanese people.

China Holds Intensive South China Sea Drills
This December 2016 photo shows Chinese J-15 fighter jets on the deck of the aircraft carrier Liaoning during drills in the Bohai Sea, off northeast China. People's Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force troops are expected to take part in joint-operations exercises in the South China Sea between December 15 and 17. STR/AFP via Getty Images