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China warns off US reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea

CNN logo CNN 2018-08-10 By Brad Lendon, Ivan Watson and Ben Westcott, CNN
The Chinese-controlled artificial island of Subi Reef in the South China Sea, as seen by CNN from a US reconnaissance plane on August 10. © Paul Devitt/CNN The Chinese-controlled artificial island of Subi Reef in the South China Sea, as seen by CNN from a US reconnaissance plane on August 10.

High above one of the most hotly contested regions in the world, CNN was given a rare look Friday at the Chinese government's rapidly expanding militarization of the South China Sea from a US reconnaissance plane.

After boarding the US Navy P8-A Poseidon in Okinawa Friday, CNN flew over the disputed waters, a large swathe of which are claimed by Beijing.

The crew received six separate warnings from the Chinese military during the flight, telling them they were inside Chinese territory and urging them to leave.

"US military aircraft, this is China ... leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding," a voice said.

The US Navy jet flew past four key islands in the Spratly chain where China has built up fortifications, including Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnston Reef and Mischief Reef.

From the window, far below, CNN was given a clear view of the airfields and radar installations on the Chinese-controlled islands which used to be harmless sandbars and shoals.

"It was surprising to see airports in the middle of the ocean," said Lt. Lauren Callen, who was leading the air combat crew aboard the Navy flight.

Competing claims

CNN gets rare access on board a US military surveillance flight over the hotly-disputed islands in the South China Sea. © Paul Devitt/CNN CNN gets rare access on board a US military surveillance flight over the hotly-disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei all claim overlapping portions of the sea spanning 3.6 million square kilometer (1.4 million square miles), but the most far-reaching claims have been made by China.

Beijing's "nine-dash line" extends more than one thousand kilometers from its southernmost province, taking in more or less the entirety of the waters, through which the United Nations estimates one-third of global shipping passes.

The South China Sea is also believed to contain rich oil and natural gas reserves that have yet to be fully explored.

Beijing's sovereignty claims are viewed by most other countries as an overreach, and a substantial proportion were ruled illegal by an international tribunal in 2016.

Despite this however, little has changed in China's approach to the region in recent years.

To reinforce its claims of sovereignty, Beijing has been reclaiming land on and around reefs and shoals to construct artificial islands which are then militarized with airfields and radar equipment.

China has spent much of the past two years fortifying these islands, including placing missiles on the Spratly island chain during naval exercises in April.

This is despite a promise made by President Xi Jinping to then-US President Barack Obama in 2015 that the Chinese government would not be militarizing the artificial islands.

CNN gets rare access on board a US military surveillance flight over the hotly-disputed islands in the South China Sea.

CNN gets rare access on board a US military surveillance flight over the hotly-disputed islands in the South China Sea.
© Paul Devitt/CNN

China claims US sparking militarization

Beijing says its growing military presence in the South China Sea is necessary to protect its sovereignty, blaming Washington and its allies for tensions in the region.

Chinese military exercises in April included the largest naval parade in the country's history, with President Xi Jinping overseeing drills that included 10,000 troops, 48 naval vessels and 76 fighter jets.

Beijing points to the regular US navy patrols and flyovers of the South China Sea as an example of US militarization and provocations, and a justification for the increased Chinese military presence.

"By playing up the so-called China's militarization in the South China Sea, certain people in the US are staging a farce of a thief crying "stop thief"," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in May. "It is self-evident to a keener eye that who is militarizing the South China Sea."

In the past year, the US has stepped up freedom of navigation operations in the region, sailing US naval vessels within miles of China's artificial islands across the South China Sea.

The exercises, which the US also conducts in other parts of the world, assert the navy's right to travel wherever it pleases in international waters, a vital component of Washington's naval power across the world.

Time may be running out to effectively challenge China's claims in the South China Sea however.

Admiral Philip Davidson, the recently installed head of the US Pacific Command, told Senators during a confirmation hearing in April that China is already very firmly entrenched.

"China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States," Davidson said.

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