China’s state-run Global Times on Sunday claimed a Chinese spy plane was able to monitor a joint naval exercise between the United States, France, Canada, and Japan and gather valuable intelligence on the ships involved, including two American aircraft carriers, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan.
According to the Global Times, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used a “new-type reconnaissance aircraft” for the mission, although later when it was crowing that China’s spy plane was detected by Japan – as proof that the PLA really was keeping tabs on that joint naval exercise – it quoted the Japanese Ministry of Defense describing the aircraft as a standard Y-9 recon plane with a few modifications.
The Shaanxi Y-9 is a Chinese military transport aircraft that can be configured for reconnaissance missions. The Global Times was vague about what made this particular Y-9 qualify as a “new type” of spy plane, but it boasted that the recon flight plus another round of aggressive incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Friday sent an intimidating message to Western powers about the folly of intervening against a Chinese attack on Taiwan:
The joint drill was monitored by the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank, which said on Friday that the two US carriers had been operating in waters around the Ryukyu Islands in the Philippine Sea since Thursday.
This sea region, located to the east of the island of Taiwan, is of key strategic value in the Taiwan question, because from there, the PLA could surround the island and deny foreign military interference attempts, a Chinese military expert who requested anonymity told the Global Times on Sunday.
Also, if foreign interference forces manage to control this region, they can provide support to the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces, the expert said.
There was nothing particularly secretive about the naval exercise China claims to have monitored. The U.S. Navy 7th Fleet announced the drill on Friday, saying it would involve “more than 12,000 sailors from across four maritime nations” to demonstrate interoperability of forces between the U.S. and its allies.
“The credibility of an integrated carrier strike force is the U.S. Navy’s greatest deterrent to those who threaten the international rules based order,” said carrier strike group commander Rear Adm. Jennifer Couture on Friday.
“Together with our allies and partners, we’re demonstrating our capability to seamlessly integrate across all domains, our readiness to respond to any contingency, and our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region,” Couture said.
Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) Rear Adm. Nishiyama Takahiro said the massive joint exercise “embodied the willingness and ability of Japan and our allies and comrades to continue our engagement in the Indo-Pacific region toward the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
In short, the exercise was a big show, and China was the intended audience. The JMSDF apparently got a very good look at China’s recon plane in return. A spokesperson for the Japanese Defense Ministry told Reuters its most interesting feature was “a piece of equipment attached to the undercarriage” that has not previously been seen in the field.
China incessantly complains about other nations flying recon planes through international airspace near waters Beijing illegally claims. Two weeks ago, a Chinese fighter jet performed an unsafe and unprofessional intercept of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, forcing its pilot to fly through the jet fighter’s turbulent wake. The incident was the latest in a string of increasingly aggressive Chinese intercepts of unarmed observation planes over international waters.