The United States has followed up on its commitment to challenge Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, recently flying a surveillance plane over newly constructed islands there and receiving warnings by the Chinese navy to evacuate the area.
The flights, and the Chinese response, were first reported on May 20 by CNN, which was given exclusive access to a P8-A Poseidon surveillance craft. The dates of the flights were not provided.
“You are approaching our military alert zone,” said one of the Chinese voices, captured by the U.S. Navy and broadcast by CNN. “Leave immediately!” Another is more to the point: “You go!”
The flights were made over the islands that the Chinese regime has over the past year worked assiduously to construct, in an area it claims as its territory.
The construction uses massive ocean dredging equipment, lifting thousands of tons of sand and rock from the sea floor and piling it onto islands, upon which military fortifications, like air strips and harbors, are then built.
Such developments are of acute concern to the United States because they appear to seek to limit freedom of navigation, a bedrock of the current global order. They also come in the context of other Chinese military developments in space and cyberwarfare that are potentially threatening to the U.S. military. Most recently, the Chinese regime decided to upgrade its flagship nuclear missile with multiple warheads, a potentially strategically destabilizing move.
Most of the island dredging work is taking place in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The islands lie about 2,000 miles south of China, between Vietnam and the Philippines, which also claim these islands.
The Chinese regime asserts that the islands it has built should have the rights of legitimate national territory—such as a 12 nautical mile exclusion zone for military vessels, and no overflight of spy planes, like that which CNN was aboard.
American officials recently floated the idea of challenging these novel territorial claims by traversing the exclusion zone. The CNN report is the first public evidence that the United States has now done so. There is no evidence that naval vessels have come within 12 nautical miles of the constructed islands.
China’s state-run media struck a nationalist tone, claiming in opinion articles that China’s response would be “resolute” if the United States violated the territorial claims made for the artificial islands. But no response on the scene, other than the warnings from the Chinese naval radio operators, has so far been registered.
“I’m scratching my head like everyone else as to what’s the [Chinese] end game here. We have seen increased activity even recently on what appears to be the building of military infrastructure,” said Capt. Mike Parker, the commander of the fleet of surveillance craft that monitor the island construction, as quoted by CNN.
The Chinese navy reportedly demanded that the P8 they were flying exit the airspace a total of eight times. The American pilots responded that, actually, they were flying through international airspace.