South China Sea militarization part of larger Chinese challenge to U.S. power


WASHINGTON (Circa) — Tensions are rising in the South China Sea as China builds up military resources in contested waters and the United States Navy asserts its presence in the region, but experts warn amid a growing list of Chinese aggressions, opportunities to halt Beijing’s maritime power grab may be dwindling.

CNN released footage Friday recorded from a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane flying over the waters at the heart of the dispute. While the air combat crew scanned artificial islands constructed by the Chinese military from 16,500 feet overhead, the aircraft received six separate warnings demanding that it leave the area.

“Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding,” a voice said over the radio each time.

“I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” the crew responded. “In exercising these rights guaranteed by international law, I am operating with due regard for the rights and duties of all states.”

Navy officials brushed off the warnings, telling CNN the U.S. has been conducting these flights for decades and neither country’s position on control of the waterway has changed.

“China now has a sizable presence in these areas of the Spratly Islands that are still disputed politically and legally and claims the U.S. should get out because this is Chinese sovereignty,” said John Ciorciari, an associate professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and author of “The Limits of Alignment: Southeast Asia and the Great Powers since 1975.”

Increased U.S. interest in surveilling the South China Sea follows rapid growth of Chinese military development on artificial islands in waters that the international community maintains do not belong to China. Beijing claims territory stretching one thousand kilometers from its southern shores have been part of the country for more than 2,000 years.

Since the 1940s, China has insisted a vaguely-established nine-dash line marks the borders of its domain. According to a 2009 Chinese map, that line runs close to the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan, all of which also claim sovereignty over parts of the sea.