American military aircraft are flying dozens of reconnaissance missions in the South China Sea each month, a Chinese think tank said on Monday.

In February, crewed and uncrewed aircraft of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Army flew 60 sorties in the region, according to data compiled by the South China Sea Strategic Probing Initiative, a Peking University think tank that tracks U.S. and allied military movements off China’s shores.

Two-thirds of the near-daily operations—down from a total of at least 60 in January—were flown by the Navy’s fleet of P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, SCSPI said.

The rest were completed by the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton surveillance drone; the Air Force’s RC-135V Rivet Joint and RC-135U Combat Sent signals intelligence aircraft; and the Army’s Global 6500 electronic intelligence-gathering platform, the group’s monthly report said.

SCSPI captures data using automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, or ADS-B, transmissions of each aircraft, typically used by air traffic control for aviation safety. Its most recent analysis, going as far back as last fall, captures a trend of frequent spy flights in international airspace near China’s coastline.

The maneuvers also seem to serve another, more symbolic purpose: to demonstrate U.S. military resolve to key allies and partners in the region. A P-8A’s publicly announced flight through the sensitive Taiwan Strait in December was one such example.

To be sure, the persistent presence of U.S. forces in the East and South China seas is an obvious pain point for Beijing, which appears to have ordered its own increasingly powerful military to push back whenever possible.

In a rare disclosure last October, the Chinese Defense Ministry said U.S. reconnaissance aircraft had flown more than 2,000 “close-in” missions around China since the beginning of 2023. U.S. warships twice entered China-claimed waters and sailed through the Taiwan Strait on five occasions, a spokesperson said.

Beijing released the figures shortly after the U.S. Defense Department declassified two years of archive footage showing what it called “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts by Chinese fighter jets.

Among some 180 incidents disclosed by Washington was an Air Force B-52 bomber’s near miss with a Chinese air force J-11 fast jet, which U.S. officials said came within 10 feet of the larger plane during a high-risk night-time intercept.

The Pentagon says U.S. forces will continue to operate wherever international law allows.

The Defense Department and the Chinese Defense Ministry did not immediately return separate requests for comment before publication.

China Think Tank Tracks US Spy Flights
A U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft departs Perth’s airport on March 28, 2014, in Perth, Australia. A Chinese think tank said on March 4 that Navy P-8As were among five types of crewed…

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