The U.S. military has begun to carefully but publicly challenge Chinese island-building on disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, creating fresh tension in a potential global tinderbox as both countries shift forces into the area.
In the latest incident, a Chinese military dispatcher demanded repeatedly that a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave as it flew near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, where China has dredged hundreds of yards of coral and sand and built an airstrip on what it claims is sovereign territory.
“Foreign military aircraft, this is Chinese navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately,” the Chinese dispatcher said in a radio transmission, the Navy recounted Thursday.
When the U.S. crew responded that it was flying in international airspace, the Chinese dispatcher answered, “This is the Chinese navy…. You go!” The U.S. plane, which was operating from an air base in the Philippines, received eight warnings from the Chinese during the mission.
Verbal sparring is common between the two militaries, but the Pentagon decision to release two videos and audio recordings from the dust-up a day earlier — less than a week after it disclosed that a U.S. warship also had sailed through the Spratlys — shows a new willingness to publicly confront Beijing for expanding construction projects in waters believed to be rich in oil and gas, and close to vital shipping lanes.