China Asserts Right to Watch Skies After Warning U.S. Plane

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Mischief Reef In The Spratly Islands
An areal photo shows China's alleged reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Photographer: Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP

China asserted the right to maintain security over islands it’s building in the South China Sea, after the country’s navy ordered a U.S. surveillance plane to leave the area.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Thursday that China has sovereignty over the artificial islands it’s created through land reclamation in the Spratly chain. The country is “entitled to the surveillance over related airspace and sea areas so as to prevent maritime and airspace accidents and situations that could harm China’s national security,” Hong said at a news briefing in Beijing.

The Chinese navy issued eight warnings Wednesday to a U.S. P8-A Poseidon conducting surveillance flights over the islands, according to the CNN, which had journalists aboard the plane. A radio message received by the U.S. plane said: “This is Chinese navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately.” The P8 crew responded that the aircraft was flying through international airspace, according to the report.

While saying he had no details about the exchange, Hong called on countries “to respect China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea and avoid actions that may complicate and intensify controversies.”

U.S. Response

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington on Thursday that it was “unclear on what basis they issued these warnings,” adding that “U.S. planes operate on the basis on international law” when flying over contested areas. She said that Secretary of State John Kerry, while in Beijing last week, raised the issue of China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea in “every meeting he had.”

The incident illustrates growing tensions between the U.S. and China, which asserts the authority to build the islands and has reserved the right to establish an air defense identification zone over the area. The U.S. contends that ships and aircraft should have freedom of navigation in the region.

President Xi Jinping told Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing on May 18 that the U.S. and China must manage disputes in a way that doesn’t affect their relationship.

“Xi said he wants stable relations with the U.S., but we’ll see,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “China is pushing hard to try and change the status quo on the water.”

Quadrupled Acreage

The USS Fort Worth met a Chinese vessel earlier this month while patrolling in waters around the Spratly Islands, Admiral Michelle Howard told reporters on Tuesday in Singapore. Stars and Stripes reported on May 13 the Chinese frigate Yancheng trailed the Fort Worth while it was in the area.

Since December, China has quadrupled to 2,000 acres its land reclamation in the Spratlys, an operation described by a U.S. admiral as a “great wall of sand.” The reclamation work has set off alarms that China seeks control of the surrounding South China Sea, which carries some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and is subject to competing claims by six governments.

The Pentagon allowed a TV crew on the flight to “raise awareness about the challenge posed by the islands and the growing U.S. response,” the report said. The aircraft flew at 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) at its lowest point. The U.S. is considering flying even closer surveillance missions, the report said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has asked the Pentagon to consider options for using extra land- and sea-based surveillance aircraft and naval vessels to underscore the freedom of navigation in the waters. Those may include expanding U.S. patrols in the sea, including into a 12 nautical mile (22 kilometer) radius of reefs where China is building.

The CNN report identified the “former” Fiery Cross Reef, and described it as now having an early warning radar, an airport tower and a runway long enough to handle any plane in the Chinese military.

‘Just Challenged’

“We were just challenged 30 minutes ago, and the challenge came from the Chinese navy, and I’m highly confident it came from ashore, this facility here,” Captain Mike Parker, commander of P8 and P3 surveillance aircraft fleet in Asia, told the network.

The Philippines has also protested after at least seven patrol planes on separate flights over the Spratly islands were warned by China in radio messages to stay away, Peter Paul Galvez, a spokesman for the country’s defense department, said in a text message Thursday.

‘Self-Serving Rules’

“The incident shows the extent to which China is willing to disregard international laws and freedom of flight and navigation,” Galvez said in a separate statement. “It is highly regrettable that they imposing their self-serving rules even in clearly established international airspace.”

CNN reported that during one of the Chinese warnings on the radio, a pilot of a Delta Air Lines Inc. flight in the area spoke on the same frequency, identifying himself as commercial. The voice on the radio then identified himself as “the Chinese navy” and the Delta flight went on its way.

Delta’s corporate communications office in Tokyo had no information about the incident, according to Ryoko Matsumoto, a spokeswoman.

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