Malaysia Risks Enraging China by Inviting U.S. Spy Flights


BEIJING — Malaysia’s reported invitation to the United States to fly spy planes out of East Malaysia on the southern rim of the South China Sea seems likely to intensify China’s anger at American surveillance of the strategic waterway and its disputed islands, analysts say.

The United States’ chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, told a forum in Washington last week that the recent offer by Malaysia for P-8 Poseidon aircraft to fly out of the country’s most eastern area would give the United States greater proximity to the South China Sea.

Malaysia, which has had warm ties with China, has not confirmed whether it made the offer. The United States has vowed to maintain its influence in the region in the face of China’s rise, and this year won an agreement with the Philippines to give American troops, warships and planes greater access to bases there.

Admiral Greenert spoke the day before Gen. Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, warned the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, during her visit to Beijing that the Obama administration should halt what he called the “close-in” surveillance flights by P-8 Poseidon planes over the South China Sea and along China’s coast.

As China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping asserts claims in the South China Sea and develops a more sophisticated fleet of submarines, it has increasingly contested the right of the United States to conduct surveillance flights over what it says are China’s territorial waters. Among other capabilities, the P-8 Poseidons can detect submarines.

Last month, a Chinese fighter pilot flew within 30 feet of a P-8, nearly causing a collision, the Pentagon said. That P-8, a new fast, high-flying plane built by Boeing and loaded with digital electronics, was based with a squadron of six P-8s that arrived at Kadena air base in Japan last year. The Pentagon has more than 100 P-8s on order from Boeing.

Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian defense minister, was asked at a news conference whether permission had been given for “U.S. fighters” to operate out of East Malaysia. “That is not true,” he said, according..

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