Photo credit AP

The South China Sea is arguably the most disputed body of water in the world, with China, the Philippines, and Taiwan all vying for influence over this strategically important area. Now China is taking further steps to bolster its position there by deploying airborne early warning and control aircraft to the Jialaishi Air Base in China’s Hainan island—and that makes smaller nations in the region who already feel the country is stealing its territory even more nervous.

And at the same time, in a big shift from previous statements, the current U.S. presidential administration appears to be warming up to China more and more, as it ostensibly sees the need for help dealing with an increasingly belligerent North Korea.

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Satellite imagery generated by DigitalGlobe show several Shaanxi KJ-500 turboprop AEW&C aircraft, a KJ-200 AEW&C aircraft; what appear to be a Y-8J or Y-8X are also visible. The March 24th image, provided recently to Defense News, document the first time China has deployed the KJ-500 to the Hainan island. The KJ-500 is a spy plane that is equipped with a “dorsal radar dish mounting an indigenous phased array radar with three fixed arrays angled at 120 degrees relative to each other for all-round coverage.”

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As Defense News notes, these are all signs that these aircraft could be permanently stationed in Hainan rather than on a temporary deployment.

Here is more on the KJ-500's deployment:

A satellite communications dome is mounted on top of the KJ-500’s radar dish along with side-looking electronic intelligence panels on both sides of the fuselage for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The type entered service with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force in late 2014 or early 2015, with six KJ-500s known to have been delivered as of January 2017, including at least two for the PLAN.

Unverified photos of the PLAN’s KJ-500s have indicated that they are carrying serial numbers belonging to the Hainan-based 9th Naval Air Division, which if true would represent a departure from the previous PLAN practice of assigning AEW&C aircraft to special-mission naval aviation units.

This isn’t the first time China has made the news for its military spy planes. Back in 2015, new photos of China’s KJ-500 airborne early-warning and control plane emerged. It was a pretty big deal because any modern air force with such planes have the advantage of seeing far more and for longer ranges than air forces that don’t have them.

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Obviously, China’s move to position these planes in the contested waters of the South China Sea have other nations, many of whom are U.S. allies, concerned more so than they have been in the past. Foxtrot Alpha has reported extensively on Beijing’s building of artificial islands in waters that belong to other countries in the region. Though, the deployment of highly sophisticated spy planes in the South China Sea and the current U.S. presidential administration’s inconsistent statements (or, arguably, a flat out lack of a clear China policy at all) have American allies in the region worried that Washington will forsake their claims of territorial integrity.

The previous White House was very critical of China’s encroachment of the South China Sea, but the Trump administration is taking a much more dovish approach with China. Recently, the White House suspended patrols of islands and reefs claimed by that nation.

Analysts and diplomats told the New York Times that Trump may be trying to loosen its criticisms of Beijing in order to gain its support to convince North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program. At the same time, this narrow focus on North Korea may very well risk longtime economic and security alliances.

It’s quite a change from previous developments, like when Trump in November communicated directly with Taiwan’s president in violation of the “One China Policy,” or how during the campaign, he railed against China for what he considered to be its one-sided trade advantage and manipulation of its currency, or how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing that China’s building of islands in the South China Sea was similar to Russia annexing Crimea. Tillerson also went as far as saying that China should be blocked from accessing its own man-made islands.

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Officials in Taipei have to be scratching their heads over the extreme reversal from Washington. One minute, its newly-elected president is breaching protocol to recognize its leadership. The next minute, it is suspending patrols in the South China Sea, which Taiwan has claims to and China has ignored.

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Meanwhile, the Philippines, historically a U.S. ally, has been forming closer relations with Beijing while distancing itself away from Washington. President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has also considered joint military exercises with China despite its sovereignty claims against Beijing over sections of the South China Sea. And Duterte is sending troops there now as well.

Currently, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims to the region along with complex relationships with China. While no one will argue that Washington fostering stronger ties with Beijing is a bad thing, there is a concern that a lack of assertiveness by the White House against China’s sovereignty violations in the South China Sea will give the impression that Washington no longer sees it as a priority. And if U.S. allies think that Washington no longer cares about the sea, then they will likely assume it accepts China’s claims to the waters and feel they have no major support to protect their territory.

That is a position that no ally should feel they are in, but that is exactly the signal Trump is sending. The only question is whether or not that signal will change again.