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US Spy Planes Monitoring China at Close Range: Legal, But Unwise

September 10, 2014 in Economics

By Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter

Recent incidents in which Chinese fighter aircraft challenged U.S. surveillance planes have added a new level of tension to an already frayed bilateral relationship. It is fairly certain that the encounters took place in international airspace, although they were in the vicinity of China’s Hainan Island. From a purely legal standpoint, Washington’s surveillance flights are justified, but from a policy standpoint, they are needlessly provocative.

There are contentious underlying issues to the latest aerial spat between Beijing and Washington. Because the United States sees itself as a global power with important interests throughout the Western Pacific and East Asia, U.S. officials are uneasy about China’s increased flexing of its geostrategic muscles. In particular, as a leading air and maritime power, Washington opposes Beijing’s attempts to establish special rights for itself in that region. Consequently, the Obama administration openly defied China’s announcement last year of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the airspace over the East China Sea.  Similarly, U.S. officials staunchly oppose Beijing’s ongoing territorial claims in the South China Sea, including an apparent bid to establish a vast exclusive economic zone. From Washington’s perspective, Beijing’s moves indicate a strategy to make regions that are now considered international airspace and international waters into de facto Chinese territory.  That ploy, the United States and its East Asian allies all agree, is utterly unacceptable.

Washington’s surveillance flights are justified, but from a policy standpoint, they are needlessly provocative.”

The recent incidents involving U.S. surveillance aircraft must be viewed within that larger context. U.S. officials are adamant that the United States has a legal right to conduct such flights in all international airspace—even in areas close to the Chinese coast. Harassment of those flights by PLA fighter planes is seen as more evidence of Beijing’s belligerent campaign to narrow the rights that other countries possess under international law.  The point is a valid one, and the United States understandably resists China’s attempts to refashion longstanding aspects of international law to its advantage.

Washington’s legal position on the matter of surveillance flights also is unassailable. But what is legal is not always prudent. It is probably not a coincidence that the latest confrontations have taken place in the airspace near Hainan Island. There is strong evidence that China maintains a vital submarine base in that area and, therefore, does not welcome U.S. snooping in the vicinity of such a sensitive installation. …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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