May 2015 – SOUTH CHINA SEA – A Chinese navy dispatcher demanded eight times Wednesday that a U.S. Air Force P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave the area as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work on what it claims as sovereign territory. 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.
U.S. officials said they are determined to preserve freedom of international navigation and airspace, but are not seeking to provoke a confrontation with China. The jockeying comes as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter heads to Asia next week on a trip intended to shore up security alliances in a region increasingly nervous about China’s policies. He will visit Singapore, Vietnam and India. Regional tension has grown since President Obama announced a so-called U.S. strategic pivot to Asia four years ago, in part to keep an eye on a fast-rising China. The administration has shifted ships and troops to the Western Pacific and expanded military ties with several countries worried about China’s growing clout, including Japan, the Philippines, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam. The renewed American focus on the region appears to have led to unintended consequences, however. Beijing has become more aggressive in asserting its maritime and territorial claims in the South China and East China seas.
Some senior Chinese officials fear that the U.S. military “has effectively ‘boxed in’ China,” Jeff Smith, director of Asia security programs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Philadelphia think tank, wrote in this month’s Foreign Affairs magazine. The Chinese are “eager to punish neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines — and even India — who they believe capitalized on a period of relative Chinese weakness to assume control of disputed islands in the South and East China Seas,” he said. For now, U.S. officials believe they can pressure China to scale back its island-building by galvanizing other Asian governments against it. In recent months, the U.S. has encouraged Japan to begin naval patrols in the South China Sea, where it doesn’t normally sail, and provided ships and other equipment to the Philippine and Vietnamese coast guards.