Things are escalating rapidly in the South China Sea where Beijing has figured out an innovative solution to the notion of “disputed waters.”

As regular readers are by now acutely aware, China appears to have adopted the maritime boundary equivalent of the old “possession is nine tenths of the law” axiom because Chinese dredgers have been busy for some time now creating islands out of reefs in the Spratly archipelago. Once the islands are complete, China promptly colonizes them. Next comes the construction of cement plants, ports, and 10,000 ft airstrips.

Not surprisingly, Washington isn’t fond of China’s “sandcastles” and everyone from President Obama to the Pentagon is now shouting from the rooftops about territorial sovereignty and Chinese “bullying.”

The US took it up a notch this week when it flew a spy plane over Fiery Cross Reef, presumably just to see what would happen. A CNN camera crew went along for the ride. What Washingtondiscovered is that when it comes to protecting its new islands, bashful China is not.  “This is the Chinese Navy… YOU GO!” was the message that came over the radio.

The rhetoric and sabre rattling haven’t let up a bit since then and in fact, there’s been a steady stream of quotables from both sides over the past 48 hours. Here’s the latest.

Via Reuters:

The United States vowed on Thursday to keep up air and sea patrols in international waters after the Chinese navy repeatedly warned a U.S. surveillance plane to leave the airspace over artificial islands China is creating in the disputed South China Sea…

The incident, along with recent Chinese warnings to Philippine military aircraft to leave areas around the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, suggested Beijing is trying to enforce a military exclusion zone above its new islands there.

Some security experts worry about the risk of confrontation, especially after a U.S. official said last week that the Pentagon was considering sending military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around the Chinese-made islands.

The senior U.S. diplomat for the East Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, told a media briefing in Washington the U.S. reconnaissance flight was “entirely appropriate” and that U.S. naval forces and military aircraft would “continue to fully exercise” the right to operate in international waters and airspace.

He said the United States would go further to preserve the ability of all countries to move in international waters and airspace.

 “Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the U.S. Navy from operating – that would not be a good bet,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week asserted Beijing’s right to reclaim the reefs and said China’s determination to protect its interests was “as hard as a rock.”

China has also said it had every right to set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea but that current conditions did not warrant one.

ADIZs are used by some nations to extend control beyond national borders, requiring civilian and military aircraft to identify themselves or face possible military interception.

And as if that isn’t enough, here’s more from a separate Reuters piece:

China said on Friday it was “strongly dissatisfied” after a U.S. military plane flew over part of the South China Sea near where China is building artificial islands, and called on the United States to stop such action or risk causing an accident…

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Chinese military drove away the U.S. aircraft, in accordance with relevant regulations, labeling the U.S. action a security threat to China’s islands and reefs.

“Such action is likely to cause an accident, it is very irresponsible and dangerous and detrimental to regional peace and stability. We express our strong dissatisfaction, we urge the U.S. to strictly abide by international law and international rules and refrain from taking any risky and provocative actions,” he told a news conference.

It’s impossible to overstate the magnitude of what China is attempting here. Beijing has literally created new sovereign territory in the middle of the ocean and is now effectively enforcing a no-fly zone.

And despite the rheotric out of Washington regarding how no one “in their right mind” would try to curtail the movement of American military operations, that is exactly what China did this week when it essentially told the P8-A Poseidon spy plane to either stop it with the spying or become a part of a reef underneath a Chinese sandcastle.

We can’t wait to see what happens next week.


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