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Spratlys flights will continue, US vows

WASHINGTON—The United States has rejected Beijing’s demands that US surveillance planes stop flying over the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, US Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said Thursday.

Over the past few months, China has been building artificial islands on coral reefs in the Spratly Islands region it claims in the South China Sea.

No stopping flights. US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Daniel Russel is greeted in Washington by Philippine Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia during
a recent diplomatic gathering.
The US State Department has expressed concern over Beijing’s claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea region.

Russel said the United States would continue “to fully exercise our rights globally to the international space” and defend the rights of all countries to freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

On Thursday, CNN reported that a Chinese naval vessel issued eight warnings  on Wednesday  to a US P8-A Poseidon advanced surveillance aircraft asking it to “please go away… to avoid a misunderstanding.”

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CNN in an exclusive interview that the incident confirmed there was “absolutely” a risk that the United States and China could go to war in the near future.

Media outlets reported last week that US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was considering expanding military patrols around the Spratly Islands, an archipelago off the Philippine, Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts.

Former senator Panfilo Lacson said  Friday  the US government is sending a strong signal to China and the international community.

“The fact that the US conducted patrol over the contested islands which China is claiming to be exclusively their own and thereafter, releasing the incident through international media says a lot already,” said Lacson.

“My concern is, it takes an aggressive action from any party in interest, no matter how insignificant, to spark a dangerous armed confrontation that could lead to war,” said Lacson.

Because of this, Lacson urged President Benigno Aquino III to convene the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss these issues with China and look for possible courses of action in dealing with the above-stated possibilities.

Aquino has never convened the NSC, which is composed of former presidents and his Cabinet secretaries.

“This is a serious threat that needs study and enlightened discussion among our security officials and top policy makers,” Lacson said.

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said he doubts if the current friction would lead to direct confrontation. He said the US seemed to be probing Chinese intent, with the aimed of setting limits on its territories and actions.

US surveillance aircraft and naval ships have yet to test China’s territorial claims around artificial islands built in the South China Sea, but the Pentagon warned  Thursday  that could be the next step.

Although the United States does not recognize China’s claims of sovereignty around the man-made structures, American P-8 surveillance planes and naval vessels patrolling the area have not ventured within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands -- the standard territorial zone around natural land.

“That would be the next step,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters.

Asked if the military would move to within that sensitive zone, he said: “We don’t have any announcement to make on next steps. We are going to continue our routine flights.”

US officials have said they are weighing sending warships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles of the man-made islands in the South China Sea to test Beijing’s controversial territorial claims.

But the move could raise tensions and lead to a standoff on the high seas -- in an area vital to global shipping lanes.

Beijing regards almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own.

The US Navy has released video from a P-8 Poseidon surveillance flight in the South China Sea which received several warnings from the Chinese military.

It showed a flotilla of vessels carrying out reclamation works in one lagoon, and an airstrip under construction on another island.

“You can see here the landing strip and on the back side there is the taxi way,” an officer says, pointing at a screen, adding that “hundreds of meters” have been built in “the past couple of months.”

The officer explained the huge dredging operation, taking material from the seabed as part of the reclamation project to provide fresh space for construction.

The new video came after a CNN television crew aboard a P-8 Poseidon plane captured a tense radio exchange between the US aircraft and Chinese forces in the area. AFP

“This is the Chinese navy... This is the Chinese navy... Please go away... to avoid misunderstanding,” a voice can be heard telling the Americans.

The Chinese navy issued eight such warnings during the P-8’s flight near the Fiery Cross Reef, one of the sites of Beijing’s massive land reclamation effort, CNN reported.

American pilots replied in each case that they were flying through international airspace.

Journalists are rarely allowed to fly in a sophisticated P-8 spy plane, much less permitted to film inside the cockpit, as the CNN crew was.

The Chinese warnings to the US aircraft are typical and occur frequently, a navy official said.

“It’s not uncommon,” the official said, adding that the Chinese sometimes send military aircraft to visually identify American planes in the area.

China’s Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that the access given to CNN showed the US was “trying to sensationalize China’s reclamation activities on some reefs and islets in the South China Sea in a bid to impose more pressure on China.”

“Washington is purposefully raising tensions with China, a move that has created a higher risk of a physical confrontation between both sides,” it added.

Earlier, Beijing said it had “indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha islands and adjacent waters”, using its name for the Spratly islands.

“We hope that relevant countries can respect China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea, avoid taking actions that may escalate or complicate the matters, and contribute to regional peace and stability,” Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.

With Beijing pursuing land reclamation at an unprecedented pace, a US naval commander has accused China of building a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims. – Macon Ramos-Araneta, PNA

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