The Chinese navy warned a U.S. surveillance aircraft to turn away eight times yesterday as it approached disputed airspace above a chain of artificial islands in the South China Sea where China is constructing military installations.
CNN was on board the P8-A Poseidon for its surveillance mission directed at observing Chinese activity in the disputed area and more broadly signaling that the U.S. does not recognize China’s territorial claims in the region. This marks the first time that the Pentagon has allowed a news team to tag along on an operation in the South China Sea. They have also declassified video taken by the surveillance operation, as well as the audio of the communications with Chinese navy, in order to raise awareness about Chinese military build-up on the man-made islands that is causing the U.S. and neighboring nations to feel a bit uneasy.
And what a mission to be on! Predictably, China was not terribly welcoming to the American spy plane. As the P8 approached Fiery Cross Reef, an island made by China some 600 miles off the coast, a voice in English crackled through the radio: “This is the Chinese navy … This is the Chinese navy … Please go away … to avoid misunderstanding.”
All eight such warnings were rebuffed, with the American pilots responding that they were flying through international airspace.
That wasn’t quite the answer the Chinese were looking for. Unable to take the hint, the frustrated Chinese radio operator finally said in exasperation: “This is the Chinese navy … You go!”
Footage taken by the P8-A Poseidon and aired by CNN show the reef-turned-island is home to more than just disgruntled radio operators. Creatively called China’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” it has military barracks, a lookout tower and a 3,000 meter runway that experts expect to be operational by the end of the year.
Rapid progress was also observed on two other artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing territorial claims over fishing and oil rights. According to CNN, in just two years of reclamation work, China has expanded these islands by a total of 2,000 acres.
While this mission is being called bold by many, it may only be a harbinger of operations to come. This time, the P8 flew at 15,000 feet at its lowest points, CNN reports that in future missions, the U.S. is thinking about flying lower and even considering sailing warships within miles of the island.
Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CNN that the confrontation indicates that there is “absolutely” a risk of the U.S. and China going to war over the islands sometime in the future:
“China is a rising power. We’re a status quo power. We’re the big dog on the block … They want more influence,” he said. “Are we going to move a little bit? Are they going to push? How is that dance going to work out? This is a significant issue for the next President of the United States.”
War is “not in their interests, (and) it’s not in our interests,” Morell acknowledged.
“But absolutely, it’s a risk,” he said.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken seems to agree, telling a conference in Jakarta earlier today that China’s land reclamation around reefs in the disputed South China Sea (that should really be its full name at this point) is undermining freedom and stability, and risks provoking tension that could lead to a conflict, according to Reuters. China Foreign Ministry has responded to Blinken’s remarks, saying that his comments have damaged trust in the region and that the U.S. needs to not take sides on the South China Sea issue.
In his visit to China last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China to take action to reduce tension in the region. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed that China’s determination in protecting its interests is “as hard as rock.”
As students of history, we are sure this will all end well.
For now, enjoy a bird’s eye view of how China’s “Great Wall of Sand” is shaping up:
by Alex Linder
[Images via CNN]