Pentagon chief urges end to island-building in South China Sea By David Alexander
"Foreign military aircraft, this is Chinese navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately," the dispatcher said on the recording. After the American crew responded that it was flying over international waters, the Chinese dispatcher responded "This is the Chinese navy ... You go!"
The incident was the latest example of friction between Washington and Beijing, with China seeking to assert its expansive claims to the South China Sea and the U.S. pushing back and attempting to demonstrate that China's massive land reclamation does not give it territorial rights.
"Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the U.S. Navy from operating. That would not be a good step. But it's not enough that a U.S. military plane can overfly international waters, even if there is a challenge or a hail and query" from the Chinese military, he said.
"We believe that every country and all civilian actors also should have unfettered access to international waters and international airspace," he said.
Speaking at a regular daily briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reiterated Beijing's insistence on its indisputable sovereignty over the islands it has created by piling sand on top of atolls and reefs.
While saying he had no information about the reported exchange, Hong said China was "entitled to the surveillance over related airspace and sea areas so as to maintain national security and avoid any maritime accidents.
"We hope relevant countries respect China's sovereignty over the South China Sea, abandon actions that may intensify controversies and play a constructive role for regional peace and stability," Hong told reporters.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea as its own, along with its scattered island groups. The area that is home to some of the world's busiest commercial shipping routes is also claimed in part or in whole by the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The U.S. and most of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) want a halt to the projects, which they suspect are aimed at building islands and other land features over which China can claim sovereignty and base military assets.
The U.S. says it takes no position on the sovereignty claims but insists they must be negotiated. Washington also says ensuring maritime safety and access is a U.S. national security priority.
China is also at odds with Japan over ownership of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing, leading to increased activity by Chinese planes and ships in the area, which lies between Taiwan and Okinawa.
Both sides have accused the other of operating dangerously, prompting fears of an incident such as the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. surveillance plane in which the Chinese pilot was killed and the American crew detained on China's Hainan island.
Also Thursday, the Chinese air force announced its latest offshore training exercises in the western Pacific as part of efforts to boost its combat preparedness.
People's Liberation Army Air Force spokesman Shen Jinke said the exercises were held in international airspace but gave no specifics. In its report on the drills, state broadcaster CCTV showed a video of Xian H-6 twin-engine bombers, a Chinese version of Russia's Tupelov Tu-16, in flight and landing at an air base, although it wasn't clear when the video was shot.
A satellite image shows an airstrip under construction at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. A U.S. Navy plane flying nearby received eight warnings from the Chinese military. (AFP/Getty Images, DigitalGlobe)
In the latest incident, a Chinese military dispatcher demanded repeatedly that a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave as it flew near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, where China has dredged hundreds of yards of coral and sand and built an airstrip on what it claims is sovereign territory.
"Foreign military aircraft, this is Chinese navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately," the Chinese dispatcher said in a radio transmission, the Navy recounted Thursday.
When the U.S. crew responded that it was flying in international airspace, the Chinese dispatcher answered, "This is the Chinese navy.... You go!" The U.S. plane, which was operating from an air base in the Philippines, received eight warnings from the Chinese during the mission.
Verbal sparring is common between the two militaries, but the Pentagon decision to release two videos and audio recordings from the dust-up a day earlier — less than a week after it disclosed that a U.S. warship also had sailed through the Spratlys — shows a new willingness to publicly confront Beijing for expanding construction projects in waters believed to be rich in oil and gas, and close to vital shipping lanes.
U.S. officials said they are determined to preserve freedom of international navigation and airspace, but are not seeking to provoke a confrontation with China.
The jockeying comes as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter heads to Asia next week on a trip intended to shore up security alliances in a region increasingly nervous about China's policies. He will visit Singapore, Vietnam and India.
Regional tension has grown since President Obama announced a so-called U.S. strategic pivot to Asia four years ago, in part to keep an eye on a fast-rising China. The administration has shifted ships and troops to the Western Pacific and expanded military ties with several countries worried about China's growing clout, including Japan, the Philippines, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam.
The renewed American focus on the region appears to have led to unintended consequences, however. Beijing has become more aggressive in asserting its maritime and territorial claims in the South China and East China seas.
Foreign military aircraft, this is Chinese navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately. - A Chinese dispatcher in a radio transmission to a U.S. Navy plane
Some senior Chinese officials fear that the U.S. military "has effectively 'boxed in' China," Jeff Smith, director of Asia security programs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Philadelphia think tank, wrote in this month's Foreign Affairs magazine.
The Chinese are "eager to punish neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines — and even India — who they believe capitalized on a period of relative Chinese weakness to assume control of disputed islands in the South and East China Seas," he said.
For now, U.S. officials believe they can pressure China to scale back its island-building by galvanizing other Asian governments against it. In recent months, the U.S. has encouraged Japan to begin naval patrols in the South China Sea, where it doesn't normally sail, and provided ships and other equipment to the Philippine and Vietnamese coast guards.
"As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries, it is eroding regional trust, undermining investor confidence and challenging the energy security upon which all of us depend," Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech Wednesday in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The U.S. surveillance flight came less than a week after the Fort Worth, a Navy littoral combat ship designed for near-shore operations, passed close to the Spratly Islands, where the Chinese are dredging sand and building up five reefs.
Pentagon officials said the patrol was meant to show that Washington does not accept China's claims that seas surrounding the disputed reefs constitute Chinese territorial waters. Chinese navy ships tailed the U.S. vessel during the patrol.
"What you're seeing by the U.S. is a calculated, transparent effort to reveal the situation in all of its details and potential dangers," said Mira Rapp Hooper, an expert in maritime disputes at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. But when military forces operate in such proximity, she warned, "there is always the danger of inadvertent or accidental escalation."
In 2013, China announced a so-called air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, requiring aircraft in the area to identify themselves and implying that those in violation could be shot down. The U.S. soon sent two B-52 bombers through the zone without giving notice, a move that U.S. officials believe led Beijing to end its demands.
Pentagon officials worry that Beijing may next try to declare an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.
The Poseidon surveillance plane flew from Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Once the largest U.S. air base in the Pacific, it was turned over to the Philippine government in 1991 after the eruption of the nearby Pinatubo volcano. The U.S. has been flying surveillance missions in the South China Sea from the Philippines since January.
Videos released by the Navy on Thursday show the P-8A flying near Fiery Cross Reef and several of the other coral outcroppings where U.S. officials say the Chinese have created 2,000 acres of land since last year.
An unidentified Navy lieutenant can be seen pointing out features on Fiery Cross Reef, including a partially finished airfield, a dredger vacuuming up sand and several plants for producing concrete.
"Currently what we're looking at is some construction on a landing strip," he says, pointing at one of the plane's high-resolution video screens. "You see here the landing strip and on the backside the taxiway that they're building. They've built hundreds of meters in the past couple months."
As the plane's cameras scan the sandy shoal, surrounded by aqua waters, he says, "Once you pan to the east, there's a dredger active that will take land from the ocean and pile it up to build more land, which gives them more space."
At one point, the video shows a radioman writing down a message from the Chinese dispatcher and a reply from the P-8: "I am a U.S. military aircraft conducting lawful activities," it reads.
In Beijing on Thursday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated China's claims of sovereignty in the Spratly archipelago.
Hong Lei said that he had no information about the warnings to the U.S. surveillance plane, but that China was "entitled to the surveillance over related airspace and sea areas so as to maintain national security and avoid any maritime accidents."
"We hope relevant countries respect China's sovereignty over the South China Sea, abandon actions that may intensify controversies and play a constructive role for regional peace and stability," Hong said at a daily news briefing, according to the Associated Press.
China's land reclamation around reefs in the disputed South China Sea is undermining freedom and stability and risks provoking tension that could lead to conflict, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a press conference in Jakarta.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, despite overlapping claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Recent satellite images suggest that China has made rapid progress in filling in land in contested territory in the Spratly Islands and in building an airstrip suitable for military use and that it may be planning another.
“As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries, it is eroding regional trust and undermining investor confidence,” Blinken said on Wednesday.
“Its behavior threatens to set a new precedent, whereby larger countries are free to intimidate smaller ones, and that provokes tensions, instability and can even lead to conflict.”
The United States and China clashed over the dispute on Saturday, when visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China to take action to reduce tension. China said its determination to protect its interests was “as hard as a rock.”
Asked about Blinken's remarks, China's Foreign Ministry demanded on Thursday that the United States not take sides on South China Sea claims and said his comments damaged trust in the region. “The U.S. assumptions are groundless,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular news briefing.
Blinken said the previous day that competing claims had to be handled “diplomatically.”
“Comments of this sort are not good for the solving of tensions and are not beneficial for the mutual trust between countries as well as maintaining the peace and the stability of the South China Sea region,” Hong said.
Because of the territorial disputes, many consider the area one of Asia's most potentially dangerous hot spots.