China Just Confirmed US Fears About Threats to Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea

from – AEI.org – by Michael Mazza

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon was considering beefed up options for responding to China’s island building in the South China Sea. Last night, a CNN crew was brought along on a US Navy P8-A patrol over the Spratly Islands, with Jim Sciutto reporting that the Chinese navy warned off the American plane eight separate times.

It’s a little unclear whether the P8-A flew within 12 nautical miles of the reefs-cum-islands, which would be within what China considers to be sovereign airspace. The nature of the Chinese warnings to the Navy aircraft suggests the P8 did not do so, or at least not initially: “Foreign military aircraft. This is Chinese navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately.”

Had the P8 entered China’s claimed territorial airspace, the Chinese sailor likely would have been clear in letting the Americans know it. At the very least, the P8 would, presumably, already have been within the “military alert zone” (whatever that is) rather than just approaching it.

Why is this important? Because it suggests that the Chinese navy attempted to deny the US navy access to non-territorial skies, i.e. international airspace. (To be clear, from a US perspective, airspace over former reefs is also international.)

There has been much speculation regarding whether China intends to establish an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea in 2013. In some ways, that debate is beside the point. Since at least 2001, Beijing has been attempting to deny free use of the waters and skies above them to American and other’s ships and aircraft.

Of course, Beijing has asserted repeatedly that it wishes to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. One three-minute CNN segment has put the lie to that claim.

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