Two Journalists Witness Tense US-China Exchanges

Chinese radio operators warn Navy plane to leave South China Sea area, and it refuses
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 21, 2022 9:25 AM CDT
US Admiral: China's Man-Made Islands Now Military Bases
US Navy AWO2 Riley Junge from Ohio looks at videos of Chinese structures and buildings on board a US P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane flying at the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea on March 20, 2022.   (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

(Newser) – China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby, a top US military commander tells the AP. US Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John C. Aquilino said the hostile actions were in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s past assurances that Beijing would not transform the artificial islands in contested waters into military bases. The efforts were part of China’s flexing its military muscle, he said.

“I think over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC," Aquilino said, using the initials of China’s formal name. “They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.” There were no immediate comments from Chinese officials. Beijing maintains its military profile is purely defensive, arranged to protect what it says are its sovereign rights. But after years of increased military spending, China now boasts the world’s second-largest defense budget after the US and is rapidly modernizing its force. Aquilino spoke with the AP onboard a Navy reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago.

During the patrol, the P-8A Poseidon plane was repeatedly warned by Chinese radio operators that it had illegally entered what they said was China’s territory. “Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment,” one of the messages said in a veiled threat. But the US plane pressed on in brief but tense moments witnessed by two AP journalists. “I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” a US pilot radioed back to the Chinese. “Exercising these rights is guaranteed by international law and I am operating with due regard to the rights and duties of all states." (Read the full story.)

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