• RC-135W and a P-8A anti-submarine aircraft patrolled the disputed waters Wednesday 
  • Chinese media say the near-shore patrols help U.S. planes gather intelligence on PLA
  • A report says China has had militia presence at Whitsun Reef for over a year 

A U.S. spy plane is reported to have buzzed the Chinese coast Tuesday amid the live-fire exercises carried out by PLA's Liaoning aircraft carrier strike group. 

This is one of the several warplanes that have flown close to Chinese territorial waters in the last few days, reports South China Morning Post, quoting Beijing-based think tank.

South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said a U.S. Air Force RC-135W electronic reconnaissance aircraft flew within 40 nautical miles of Qingdao, where the PLA Navy's North Sea Fleet is headquartered. 

An RC-135W and a P-8A anti-submarine aircraft patrolled the disputed waters on Wednesday too. The report adds that last week, U.S. spy planes were also spotted patrolling along the southeast coast of Guangdong province before heading south to the disputed Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea.

According to the think tank, these aircraft may have turned off their responders as they temporarily "disappeared" from public radar records while flying over the eastern to the northern section of the Paracels.

South China Morning Post quoted state broadcaster China Central Television, which said the near-shore patrols helped U.S. planes to detect electronic signals on land, thereby gathering intelligence on the PLA. 

"The patrols enable them to obtain more information in the shortest time and more valuable signals in the most efficient manner," the report quoted the broadcaster. 

Beijing had earlier accused the U.S. of spying on it by disguising warplanes as civilian aircraft. According to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, the U.S. had carried out at least 100 such operations in 2020. 

Urging Washington to stop such "dangerous provocations to avoid air and sea accidents," Wenbin said it is a common trick for the U.S. Air Force to impersonate the transponder code of civilian aircraft from other countries. 

Meanwhile, U.S.-based agency Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) claims to disprove the Chinese argument that its boats were only sheltering in the disputed Whitsun Reef, an incident that escalated tensions in the South China Sea in March. 

A flotilla of Chinese boats, manned by militia members, had stationed itself around the reef, which comes under the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), triggering protest from Manila.

In a report published Wednesday, AMTI said China has sustained a militia presence at Whitsun for more than a year. 

The agency, by tracking the vessel profiles in the commercial AIS database Marine Traffic, has identified 14 of the Chinese ships from the photos and videos captured by the Philippines at Whitsun Reef. These ships are all from southern China’s Guangdong province and were first tracked patrolling Union Banks, which includes Whitsun Reef, in early 2019. 

“As with other known militia deployments, the behavior of these vessels defies commercial explanation. And the militia has been patrolling Union Banks in general for at least the last two years," the report said. 

The United States runs regular operations in the South China Sea The United States runs regular operations in the South China Sea Photo: AFP / Catherine LAI