U.S. Spy Plane Warned Off By China As Tensions Rise

A U.S. surveillance plane flying over the South China Sea was told to leave the area by the Chinese Navy.

Beijing is currently reclaiming land and constructing a series of artificial islands designed to bolster its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. A U.S. surveillance plane flying over the area received 8 warnings from the Chinese Navy, reports Jim Sciutto for CNN.

U.S. Spy Plane Warned Off By China As Tensions Rise

China’s military buildup on newly constructed islands

China is undertaking a huge military build-up on the islands which has caused alarm bells to ring at the Pentagon. The U.S. is making surveillance flights to show China that it does not accept Beijing’s territorial claims in the area, which are contributing to rising tensions.

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said that this latest confrontation provides evidence of the risk of a war between the U.S. and China. CNN reporters were allowed to join the surveillance flights, which are made by the P8-A Posiedon surveillance and submarine-hunting aircraft.

As the U.S. bolsters its response to Chinese actions in the area, tensions are rising between the two powers. “This is the Chinese navy … This is the Chinese navy … Please go away … to avoid misunderstanding,” said a voice in English during one flight.

The Pentagon declassified video and audio of Chinese activities for the first time in order to raise awareness of the deteriorating situation in the area, which is alarming to both the U.S. and its regional allies.

Territorial claims stoke tensions

Tensions are caused by the complicated territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is home to fertile fishing grounds and perhaps even natural resources. Despite the fact that other nations are closer to the area, China is increasingly asserting its claims far from its coastline.

Over the past few months China has built up a series of reefs, which the U.S. is worried will become military installations in the not too distant future. This creation of new territory is part of a larger military development which some say is intended to present a challenge to U.S. regional hegemony.

Not only does Beijing now have its first aircraft carrier, huge investment in its nuclear program means that missiles are now equipped with multiple warheads. China has also developed anti-ship missiles, and is apparently building military bases far from its coastline. All of this adds to worries over the developing situation.

Ex-CIA Director worried by situation

As Morell says, “there’s a real risk, when you have this kind of confrontation, for something bad happening.” He worries that China’s attempts to expand its influence could lead to war between the two powers.

“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.”

He acknowledges that war would be damaging to both parties, and it is “not in their interests, (and) it’s not in our interests.”  Morell acknowledged.

The islands have expanded by 2,000 acres in only 2 years, with Chinese engineers working miracles in waters that can reach 300 feet deep. One of them, known as Fiery Cross Reef, is now home to a military barracks, a lookout tower and a runway which can receive every existing aircraft in the Chinese military. It has even been christened China’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

Construction looks set to continue

China is placing great importance on these islands, as evidenced by the amount of protection they are being given. “There’s obviously a lot of surface traffic down there: Chinese warships, Chinese coast guard ships. They have air search radars, so there’s a pretty good bet they’re tracking us,” said Lt. Cmdr Matt Newman during one of the flights.

Every time that the Chinese navy warned away the P8, its pilots informed them that the aircraft was currently in international airspace. Chinese aggression in the face of surveillance flights has been increasing as Beijing builds more and more installations, and the pace of construction is rapid.

Reporters observed dozens of dredgers continuing to work on the reclamation of yet more land. “We see this every day,” Parker said. “I think they work weekends on this because we see it all the time.”

As construction work continues, China appears to be becoming bolder in its assertion of territorial claims. The South China Sea looks set to be an increasingly important issue in the next few years, as does the growing influence of Beijing around the world.