The U.S. military has begun actively — and more publicly — challenging China’s sovereignty claims over half a dozen artificial islands Beijing has been rapidly constructing through massive land reclamation.
On May 22, a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft — a militarized version of the Boeing 737 — flew from Clark Air Base in the Philippines over Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef, previously submerged coral features that China occupied in the mid-1990s and late 1980s, and is now expanding into a landmass several times their original size. Recent satellite images show the construction of an airstrip, port facilities, cement factories and barracks, among other installations. U.S. defense officials also revealed that China had put two large artillery vehicles on one island.
In a video captured by CNN, which had a crew on the P-8 flight, China’s navy dispatcher warned the plane eight times to leave the area, and each time the U.S. pilots responded by saying: “I am a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities acting outside national airspace. I am with due regard in accordance with international law.”
The U.S. refuses to recognize China’s sovereignty over disputed islands. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. will continue to enforce freedom of navigation in what it considers international waters. U.S. officials are concerned that China could use the islands to fortify its claims and gain the upper hand by force and intimidation.
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