US Navy plane warned over South China Sea

High above one of the most hotly contested regions in the world, CNN was given a rare look at the Chinese government's rapidly expanding militarization of the South China Sea. CNN's Ivan Watson reports.

Posted: Aug 12, 2018 5:17 PM
Updated: Aug 12, 2018 5:38 PM

High above one of the most hotly contested regions in the world, CNN was given a rare look Friday at the Chinese government's rapidly expanding militarization of the South China Sea

Aboard a US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane, CNN got a view from 16,500 feet of low-lying coral reefs turned into garrisons with five-story buildings, large radar installations, power plants and runways sturdy enough to carry large military aircraft.

During the flight the crew received six separate warnings from the Chinese military, telling them they were inside Chinese territory and urging them to leave.

"Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding," a voice said.

The US Navy jet flew past four key artificial islands in the Spratly chain where China has built up fortifications: Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef and Mischief Reef.

On Subi Reef, the Poseidon's sensors picked up 86 vessels, including Chinese coast guard ships, moored in a giant lagoon, while on Fiery Cross Reef rows of hangers stood alongside a lengthy runway.

"It was surprising to see airports in the middle of the ocean," said Lt. Lauren Callen, who was leading the air combat crew aboard the Navy flight.

Each time the aircraft was challenged by Chinese military, the US Navy crew's response was the same.

"I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state," the response said.

"In exercising these rights guaranteed by international law, I am operating with due regard for the rights and duties of all states."

CNN has reached out to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.

Competing claims

The Chinese government staunchly maintains large areas of the South China Sea have been part of the country's territory "since ancient times."

Beijing's "nine-dash line" extends more than one thousand kilometers from its southernmost province, taking in more or less the entirety of the waters, through which the United Nations estimates one-third of global shipping passes.

The South China Sea is also believed to contain rich oil and natural gas reserves that have yet to be fully explored.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei all claim overlapping portions of the sea which spans 3.6 million square kilometer (1.4 million square miles), but the most far-reaching claims have been made by China.

Beijing's sovereignty claims are considered by most other countries as unsubstantiated, a view backed by an international tribunal in 2016.

Despite this however, little has changed in China's approach to the region in recent years.

To reinforce its claims of sovereignty, Beijing has been reclaiming land on and around reefs and shoals to construct artificial islands which are then militarized with airfields and radar equipment.

China has spent much of the past two years fortifying these islands, including placing missiles on the Spratly island chain during naval exercises in April.

This is despite a promise made by President Xi Jinping to then-US President Barack Obama in 2015 that the Chinese government would not be militarizing the artificial islands.

Rapid expansion

The last time CNN was given access to a US Navy mission over the South China Sea was in September 2015, when the aircraft was also warned off by Chinese military.

Since then, Beijing's island building in the contested waters has moved forward at a rapid pace.

Flying over Fiery Cross Reef on Friday, a five-story building was visible, as well as a large radar installation, which looked like neatly arranged golf balls on the Navy plane's infrared camera.

Though no Chinese missiles were seen on Friday's flight over the South China Sea, Navy officers said some of the structures seen could potentially be used to house them.

Cmdr. Chris Purcell, who leads Patrol Squadron Four which undertook Friday's mission, said the US has been doing these flights for five decades and they show US commitment to maintaining free passage in international waters.

"The reason we're here hasn't changed," Purcell said. "The reason (the Chinese) are here has changed."

Within hours of the trip, Chinese state tabloid Global Times posted a reaction to CNN's report on its Chinese-language website. The article called for all readers to "give a thumbs-up to Chinese servicemen" for their defense of China's territory.

China claims US sparking militarization

Beijing says its growing military presence in the South China Sea is necessary to protect its sovereignty, blaming Washington and its allies for tensions in the region.

Chinese military exercises in April included the largest naval parade in the country's history, with President Xi Jinping overseeing drills that included 10,000 troops, 48 naval vessels and 76 fighter jets.

Beijing points to the regular US Navy patrols and flyovers of the South China Sea as an example of US militarization and provocations, and a justification for the increased Chinese military presence.

"By playing up the so-called China's militarization in the South China Sea, certain people in the US are staging a farce of a thief crying "stop thief"," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in May. "It is self-evident to a keener eye that who is militarizing the South China Sea."

In the past year, the US has stepped up freedom of navigation operations in the region, sailing US naval vessels within miles of China's artificial islands across the South China Sea.

The exercises, which the US also conducts in other parts of the world, assert the navy's right to travel wherever it pleases in international waters, a vital component of Washington's naval power across the world.

Time may be running out to effectively challenge China's claims in the South China Sea however.

Adm. Philip Davidson, the recently installed head of the US Pacific Command, told Senators during a confirmation hearing in April that China is already very firmly entrenched.

"China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States," Davidson said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 15752

Reported Deaths: 739
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds100625
Lauderdale73862
Madison72423
Scott65012
Neshoba64639
Jones62928
Forrest56438
DeSoto5427
Rankin4398
Holmes42928
Leake42712
Copiah3124
Jackson30813
Attala29817
Yazoo2814
Newton2714
Leflore26431
Lincoln26329
Harrison2587
Monroe25725
Oktibbeha23912
Lamar2385
Lowndes2119
Pearl River20931
Wayne2041
Pike20311
Adams19915
Noxubee1866
Washington1787
Warren17310
Covington1652
Jasper1634
Bolivar16211
Lee1536
Smith15211
Kemper14411
Clarke14418
Lafayette1364
Chickasaw13512
Coahoma1254
Carroll11711
Winston1171
Marion1159
Clay1124
Claiborne1112
Lawrence1021
Simpson1010
Tate941
Grenada943
Yalobusha935
Hancock9111
Wilkinson889
Itawamba877
Montgomery851
Sunflower843
Union835
Marshall833
Jefferson Davis773
Tippah7311
Panola713
Webster692
Calhoun654
Amite641
Humphreys607
Walthall560
Tunica553
Prentiss533
Perry503
Choctaw432
Jefferson421
Pontotoc353
Quitman330
Tishomingo320
Stone300
Franklin292
Tallahatchie271
George251
Alcorn171
Benton150
Greene131
Sharkey70
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 18246

Reported Deaths: 644
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2239116
Jefferson1837102
Montgomery171040
Tuscaloosa78315
Marshall6939
Franklin5567
Lee54833
Shelby51720
Tallapoosa42765
Butler41118
Chambers35525
Walker3542
Elmore3548
Madison3394
Baldwin2909
Morgan2801
Dallas2723
Etowah25711
DeKalb2483
Lowndes24612
Coffee2361
Sumter2247
Autauga2214
Houston2204
Bullock2095
Pike2030
Colbert1842
Hale1739
Russell1710
Marengo1706
Barbour1671
Lauderdale1642
Calhoun1603
Choctaw1538
Wilcox1487
Clarke1442
Cullman1430
Randolph1277
St. Clair1231
Marion12211
Pickens1164
Dale1150
Talladega1135
Limestone1060
Chilton1011
Greene944
Winston900
Macon824
Henry802
Covington801
Jackson782
Crenshaw753
Bibb751
Washington706
Escambia633
Blount621
Lawrence500
Geneva430
Conecuh411
Coosa401
Monroe402
Perry390
Cherokee373
Clay272
Lamar260
Fayette160
Cleburne151
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 73°
Columbus
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 74°
Oxford
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 66°
Starkville
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 66°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather