American military vessels and aircraft carried out more than 700 patrols in the South China Sea region during 2015, making China the U.S.’s No. 1 surveillance target, according to a report by China’s only state-backed institution dedicated to research of the waters.
The patrols pose a threat to China’s sovereignty and security interests, said the report by the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, which is headquartered in Hainan island. The document, the first of its kind released by China, warned that continued targeted operations by U.S. patrols would lead to militarization of the waters.
“China could possibly set up an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea if the U.S. continues to intensify patrols and low-altitude spying in the region,” Wu Shicun, president of the think tank, told reporters in Beijing.
Tensions in the region have risen after China built a web of artificial islands with runways and lighthouses on reefs that it claims are its sovereign territory. Donald Trump, who is preparing to take over the U.S. presidency in January, has accused Beijing of building a military fortress on reefs, saying in March that China’s leaders “do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country.”
“It’s very possible for President-elect Donald Trump to deploy more vessels in the South China Sea,” Wu said, adding that there’s only a “very small chance” of military conflict in the region.