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US steps up South China Sea surveillance

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015.
U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015.

The US is to deploy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to Singapore for the first time in the latest response to China and its growing military presence in the South China Sea.

The US and Singapore announced on Monday that the first deployment of the spy aircraft would take place this month with further missions likely in the coming months.The announcement, which was made after Ng En Hen, Singapore's defence minister, visited the Pentagon on Monday, is the latest move in a military partnership between the two countries that has quietly expanded in recent years amid China's military expansion.

The deployment of the spy aircraft comes several weeks after the US sent a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of the artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea over the past two years to show it does not recognise any claims over the surrounding seas.

Although Singapore is not one of the countries that, along with China, has claims on the disputed islands and land features in the South China Sea, it has been alarmed by China's aggressive programme of land reclamation and the potential for tensions in the region.

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During the past year while the Obama administration has debated its response to China, Singapore encouraged the US to repeat October's freedom-of-navigation type operation. In 2012, Singapore agreed to allow the US Navy to deploy its new littoral combat ships at its port. However, more than most countries in the region, Singapore has a carefully-calibrated relationship with China, where its security ties with the US are matched by deep economic connections with China.

The US and Singapore said that the P-8 aircraft would take part in exercises and could help with disaster relief and "maritime security efforts".

The P-8s, which the US has also flown from Japan and the Philippines, operate an advanced radar system and have become a central part of the US strategy to mark a greater presence in the South China Sea.

China has complained about the presence of the spy aircraft in the region, including issuing a series of warnings to a P-8 in May that was flying over contested islands and had a crew from CNN onboard.

During a state visit to the US in September, China's President Xi Jinping said that the country had no intention to militarise the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea. US officials say that China is constructing four airfields that would have the capacity to accommodate most military aircraft.