On Wednesday we showed what happens when US spy planes carrying CNN reporters get too close to China’s land reclamation project in the South China Sea. In short, the Chinese Navy not-so-politely advises them to “Go now!”

China is working diligently to construct man-made islands atop reefs in the Spratly archipelago where Beijing shares disputed waters with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. For its part, Washington is none too pleased with the effort and in a fantastic example of ironic rhetoric and American hypocrisy, The White House is shouting about violations of territorial sovereignty and Chinese “bullying”.

The Pentagon meanwhile has said the US may consider confronting China in the region with surveillance aircraft (and CNN crews apparently) and war ships, a move China has gently advised against, telling Washington that it might be in everyone’s best interest if the US “refrains from risky and provocative actions,” and now, China looks to have conducted a practice bombing raid on Wednesday.

Via The South China Morning Post:

China’s air force sent a group of strategic bombers through the Miyako Strait south of Okinawa in a long-range drill for the first time yesterday as part of military exercises in the western Pacific.

The manoeuvre came as US-based CNN reported that the Chinese navy repeatedly warned a US surveillance plane to leave airspace over artificial islands that Beijing is building in the disputed South China Sea.

CNN reported that on Wednesday a Chinese navy dispatcher demanded eight times that a US Air Force P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave the area as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work. The exercise and the warnings underscore growing tensions between the armed forces of China and the United States, and China’s neighbours.

PLA Air Force spokesman Colonel Shen Jinke said in a statement on The PLA Daily’s website that the bombers flew over the strait in a routine drill that was part of a blue-water training exercise.Shen said the drill was not aimed at any country, region or target, and similar exercises could be conducted in future.

Now that the Chinese Navy has explicitly told at least one US surveillance aircraft to “leave immediately” (and implicitly threatened to shoot it down, CNN camera crew and all), it’s the US’s turn to ratchet up the war rhetoric. This time it’s John Kerry’s deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s turn to denounce China’s series of sea sandcastles. Reuters has more:

China’s land reclamation around reefs in the disputed South China Sea is undermining freedom and stability, and risks provoking tension that could even lead to conflict, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a conference in Jakarta.

China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, its claims overlapping with those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Recent satellite images suggest China has made rapid progress in filling in land in contested territory in the Spratly islands and in building an airstrip suitable for military use and that it may be planning another.

“As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries, it is eroding regional trust and undermining investor confidence,” Blinken said on Wednesday.

“Its behavior threatens to set a new precedent whereby larger countries are free to intimidate smaller ones, and that provokes tensions, instability and can even lead to conflict.”

As for China … well, let’s just say that the resolve to implement territorial expansion via fake island construction is pretty strong:

China said its determination to protect its interests was “as hard as a rock”.

Asked about Blinken’s remarks, China’s Foreign Ministry demanded on Thursday that the United States abide by the principle of not taking sides on the South China Sea, and said his comments damaged trust in the region.

“The U.S. assumptions are groundless,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular briefing.

“Groundless” though these assumptions may be, one thing that is now certainly not “groundless” is Fiery Cross Reef.

*  *  *

Satellite photography has identified three cement plants operating on the island.

China has already constructed in excess of 60 semi-permanent or permanent buildings.

At least 20 structures are visible on the southern side of the island (ZH: including a helipad).

China is building an airstrip on the island. The airstrip is likely large enough to land nearly any Chinese aircraft.

Images taken on April 11 show the runway more than one-third complete.

Full interactive report available here from the AMTI

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