US surveillance aircraft and naval ships are yet to test China’s territorial claims around artificial islands built in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), but the Pentagon warned on Thursday that could be “the next step.”
Beijing regards islands and other features in almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own.
Although the US does not recognize China’s claims of sovereignty around the man-made structures that are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, its P-8 surveillance planes and naval vessels patrolling the area have not ventured within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands — the standard territorial zone around natural land.
“That would be the next step,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters.
When asked if the military would move to within that sensitive zone, he said, “We don’t have any announcement to make on next steps. We are going to continue our routine flights.”
Manila also on Thursday asserted its freedom to fly its aircraft over disputed territories, after China reportedly shooed away a US spy plane flying over artificial islands that Beijing is creating in the West Philippine Sea.
In a news conference, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the Philippines is firm on exercising freedom of navigation both in international waters and airspace.
“Our position remains firm on the need to ensure freedom of navigation, freedom of aviation and international law in the disputed areas,” Coloma told reporters in Filipino.
According to him, the Philippine government is still verifying the reported confrontation between a US military flight crew and the Chinese Navy.
But he said this incident highlighted the increasing maritime tensions caused by China’s ongoing massive reclamation activities in disputed territories.
“Because of this recent incident, the tense situation is becoming clearer and we don’t want this to worsen,” Coloma added.
The Palace official said the Philippines will continue resolving the territorial dispute through peaceful means.
“While we recognize that there is a tense situation, we are still determined to push our position based on international law,” Coloma added.
US officials have said they are weighing sending warships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles of the man-made islands in the South China Sea to test Beijing’s controversial territorial claims.
But the move could raise tensions and lead to a standoff on the high seas–in an area vital to global shipping lanes.
The US has also rejected Beijing’s demands that US surveillance planes stop flying over the disputed areas in the South China Sea, US Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel also told reporters.
Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia, said the flight of a US reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea was a regular and appropriate occurrence.
He added that the US will seek to preserve the ability of not just the United States but all countries to exercise their rights to freedom of navigation and overflight.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the US Navy from operating. That would not be a good step. But it’s not enough that a US military plane can overfly international waters, even if there is a challenge or a hail and query” from the Chinese military, he said.
“We believe that every country and all civilian actors also should have unfettered access to international waters and international airspace,” Russel added.
On Thursday, CNN reported that a Chinese naval vessel issued eight warnings on Wednesday to a US P8-A Poseidon advanced surveillance aircraft asking it to “please go away… to avoid a misunderstanding.”
Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell also told CNN in an exclusive interview that the incident confirmed there was “absolutely” a risk that the United States and China could go to war in the near future.
China’s Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that the access given to CNN journalists on a US surveillance mission showed that Washington was “trying to sensationalize China’s reclamation activities on some reefs and islets in the South China Sea in a bid to impose more pressure on China.”
“Washington is purposefully raising tensions with China, a move that has created a higher risk of a physical confrontation between both sides,” it added.
Earlier, Beijing said it had “indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha islands and adjacent waters,” using its name for the Spratly islands.
“We hope that relevant countries can respect China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea, avoid taking actions that may escalate or complicate the matters, and contribute to regional peace and stability,” Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei also told reporters.
With Beijing pursuing land reclamations at an unprecedented pace, a US naval commander has accused China of building a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims.