U.S. Ponders Fighter Escorts for China Spy Flights

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USS Kitty Hawk makes her way towards Changi Pier

TIME.com: Now that the 24 detained U.S. personnel have returned from Hainan, the Navy faces the question of when to relaunch surveillance missions. There have been reports that the USS Kitty Hawk, currently sailing for Guam, could be deployed in the South China Sea to provide fighter escorts for EP-3s. How likely is the Navy to send up fighters?

Mark Thompson: Flights could begin as early as Thursday, but there's some concern over what sending a fighter escort would signal to the Chinese. These are legitimate flights in international airspace, and there's a feeling in some quarters that sending fighter escorts sends a signal that we think we're doing something wrong or hostile. They shouldn't need fighter escorts. Then again, you don't want to be the admiral who made that call if an EP-3 is shot down on Thursday. They may decide to have fighters nearby, but not actually escorting the surveillance plane.

It may be a good idea to have the Kitty Hawk hanging around, although that decision hasn't yet been taken. There's also a concern that if the ship is turned around and sailed into the South China Sea, close to the island of Hainan, it may raise China's hackles. And the question is whether we really want to do this. If you were the President, you may want to consider whether it's worth sending up fighter planes in a region where the Chinese are so jittery that they may end up shooting at you, which could start a war. On the other hand, you're not going to concede to China's demand to stop surveillance flights, and you have to find a way to ensure the safety of your crews.

Rather than sending up fighter planes, my instinct tells me the U.S. is more likely to resume surveillance flights, but start them off a lot further away from the Chinese coastline — 50 or more miles out rather than at the 12-mile boundary. That allows the U.S. to maintain the precedent of surveillance flights and show the Chinese we're still in the neighborhood without sticking them in the eye. If everyone wants to calm the situation down, I think flights will resume this week but well offshore. And over time the flights would then move closer again.

But much also depends on the outcome of the meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials on Wednesday to hammer out issues concerning surveillance flights.

What ground does the U.S. military want reclaimed when it sits down with the Chinese to hammer out protocols over these midair encounters?

Besides setting limits on how close their planes fly to ours, the major issue will be agreeing on the map of Chinese airspace. Beijing has a rather flexible definition of international waters. In fact they're claiming the U.S. EP-3 was inside an economic exclusion zone around some islands, although Washington disputes this. So a major issue at the meeting will be establishing the boundaries of China's sovereignty. A lot of the discussion is going to be over cartography. You shouldn't be sending warplanes up with these things undecided, because you don't want to put our people in harm's way.