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U.S. quietly resumes surveillance flights off China

From Chris Plante
CNN National Security Producer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. reconnaissance planes have resumed regular flights off the Chinese coast, six weeks after a collision between a U.S. plane and a Chinese jet fighter.

The first flight after the collision, on May 7, was widely reported. But Pentagon sources told CNN on Tuesday that two more reconnaissance flights took place last week with no Chinese interference.

The flights so far have avoided the airspace around Hainan Island, where the Navy EP-3 surveillance plane remains grounded after the April 1 incident, in which the Chinese fighter crashed into the sea and the U.S. plane was forced to land.

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The last two flights have followed a route the Pentagon calls the "northern track," along China's northern and central coast. Chinese fighter pilots have been less aggressive in shadowing those U.S. surveillance flights than they have along the southern coast, near Hainan.

Chinese fighter jets were dispatched to monitor at least one of last week's flights, but they kept a distance the Pentagon considered nonconfrontational, according to defense officials who asked to remain anonymous.

China has objected to the flights and urged the U.S. military to stop them. U.S. officials say the flights occur in international airspace and are needed to keep tabs on China's military capabilities.

The U.S. has also stepped up monitoring of Chinese military activities from other sources, including submarines and the surveillance ship USNS Assertive.

The Assertive is capable of eavesdropping on electronic communications from great distances, as are submarines. But ships alone "cannot replicate (the capabilities) of an EP-3," according to one well-placed official.

Also operating in the region is the oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch, which maps the contours of the ocean floor. That information can help submarine crews find safe niches where they can submerge and listen to Chinese communications.

The Chinese frigate Jianheu encountered the Bowditch near the Chinese coast in international waters on March 23 and aggressively confronted the unarmed ship, sources told CNN. The U.S. ship left the area rather than continue the confrontation, but has since resumed its mission.

Meanwhile, U.S. State Department officials continue to negotiate with Chinese government officials for the return of the $80 million plane to the United States.

State and Defense Department officials say the most efficient way to get the plane back would be to repair the damage and fly it out. Beijing says it will not allow the spy plane to be repaired, and has told the U.S. officials to find another way.

The Pentagon is considering other methods of getting the plane back, including flying it out aboard a giant transport plane.

Because they believe Beijing would object to a U.S. Air Force transport plane landing on Hainan, Pentagon officials are considering chartering a giant Russian-made IL-76 transport plane for the task. Military logisticians believe the EP-3 Aries could fit aboard the IL-76, the world's largest transport plane, after its engines, wings and tail section were removed.

A team of Lockheed engineers sent to Hainan Island to assess the damage to the Navy plane concluded that a team of 12 technicians could get it flying in 10 days.



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