US military surveillance planes are used off China’s coast. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

While China continues to harangue Taiwan with overflights, forcing the island nation to scramble its air force, it seems Beijing is getting a taste of its own medicine lately.

According to Chinese state-backed research organization South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative’s website, a reported spike in US military flights over the seas near China reflects Washington’s drive to deter Chinese expansion in contested waters, Voice of America reported.

US military surveillance planes flew off China’s coast 60 times in September, more than in July or August, the group said.

US Army Maj. Randy Ready, a spokesperson for Indo-Pacific Command, would say only that flight frequency near China has been consistent over time.

American planes fly anywhere that it’s legal and continue their flights in Asia, Ready said.

“While the scope of our operations varies based on the current operating environment, the US has a persistent military presence and routinely operates throughout the Indo-Pacific, including the waters and airspace surrounding the East China Sea and the South China Sea,” he said.

He called the air movement “a continued demonstration of our commitment to the region and our willingness to defend the freedoms enshrined in international law,” VOA reported.

Most sorties flew over the South China Sea, the organization’s website says.

America’s U2 ‘Dragon Lady’ spy plane. Credit: Lockheed Martin graphic.

Beijing contests sovereignty over that resource-rich, 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea with five other Asian governments, and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in July that Washington would help other states resist Chinese expansion, VOA reported.

US air activity would back up Pompeo’s directive, said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.

Pompeo had called China’s actions at sea illegal, and any increase in flights this year “can be considered commensurate with the US State Department’s July policy statement that specific PRC South China Sea claims are unlawful,” King said.

China lodged “stern representations” with the United States in August, accusing it of sending a U-2 reconnaissance plane into a no-fly zone over Chinese live-fire military drills, further ratcheting up tensions between Beijing and Washington, The Guardian reported.

China has long denounced US surveillance activities, while the US has complained of “unsafe” intercepts by Chinese aircraft.

China’s defence ministry said that the U-2 flew without permission over a no-fly zone in the northern military region where live fire drills were taking place, “seriously interfering in normal exercise activities,” The Guardian reported.

This could easily have caused a misunderstanding or misjudgment or an “unexpected incident,” the ministry added.

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“It was an act of naked provocation, and China is resolutely opposed to it, and have already lodged stern representations with the US side.”

Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan, told VOA A a particular point of interest would be the Luzon Strait, between Taiwan and the Philippines’ Luzon Island.

US allies aren’t as strong at that South China Sea entry point as they are in the East China Sea, he said.

Pilots can also track any Chinese submarines and “familiarize” themselves with the sea in that region, Huang said.

China alarmed other countries as it expanded in the sea from about 2010 through 2017 by landfilling tiny islets for military, civilian and resource exploitation purposes, VOA reported.

It also has more firepower than the other maritime claimants, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, and is prone to bullying them.

Surveillance incidents have occurred before, between the US and China, notably in April 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks.

A US Navy P3 spy plane flying a routine reconnaissance mission over the South China Sea was struck by a People’s Liberation Army fighter jet that veered aggressively close, The Intercept online reported.

The mid-air collision killed the Chinese pilot, crippled the Navy plane, and forced it to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield, touching off a tense international showdown for nearly two weeks while China refused to release the two-dozen American crew members and damaged aircraft.

Two years after the incident, journalists saw a redacted US military report, which revealed that although crew members had jettisoned documents out an emergency hatch as they flew over the sea and had managed to destroy some signals-collection equipment before the plane fell into the hands of the Chinese, it was “highly probable” China had still obtained classified information from the plane, The Intercept reported.