US to continue China spy flights despite Su-27 incident

Singapore
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The USA will continue to carry out reconnaissance flights close to Chinese airspace despite a recent airborne incident involving aircraft from the USA, China and Taiwan.

On 29 June, a People's Liberation Army Air Force Sukhoi Su-27 briefly crossed the centre of the Taiwan Strait, straying into Taiwanese airspace, according to a Taiwan defence ministry statement.

Taiwanese media reports said Taiwanese Lockheed Martin F-16s were scrambled to intercept the intruder, which itself was chasing an alleged US Air Force Lockheed U-2 aircraft on a reconnaissance mission.

At a media conference on 25 July, Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, addressed the issue of US spy flights close to Chinese airspace.

"The Chinese don't like our routine reconnaissance flights in international airspace, and we don't like any attempt to inhibit freedom of navigation and access to the global commons to include international waters and airspace," Mullen said.

In regard to Chinese protests about the flights, he added: "If we respond in a way that cedes the position of the Chinese there, you can't fly in this area, that again is a signal globally, quite frankly, for something that's an international standard that we've had for a long, long time.

"The Chinese would see us move out of there. I don't see that as the case. We're not going to do that, from my perspective. These reconnaissance flights are important."

The incident comes while a sale of 66 new F-16C/Ds to Taiwan hangs in the balance. Several members of the US Congress have called for the requested purchase to go ahead, citing American jobs and the security of Taiwan. The State Department, however, is reportedly concerned about offending China. Its preferred course may be to upgrade Taiwan's existing F-16A/Bs.

One industry observer with experience in Taiwan is sceptical of the sale.

"The political downside of offending China is too great right now," he said, noting the importance of the US-Sino relationship.