Last week, the U.S. military invited CNN on board a surveillance flight in the South China Sea, allowing the news outlet to record Chinese reclamation activities as well as the Chinese military’s warnings that the U.S. plane should “leave immediately.” The U.S. military personnel replied that their aircraft was “conducting lawful military activities acting outside national airspace.”
The incident was especially notable given an earlier report from the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. Department of Defense is considering conducting surveillance operations within 12 nautical miles of disputed features — an area that China would claim as territorial waters and airspace. The crux of the issue is that the United States wants to publicly register that it does not believe newly-built islands in the South China Sea can generate territorial claims under international law. The publicity push surrounding last week’s surveillance flight was seen as a step in that direction.
As I wrote earlier, China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the surveillance operation as “irresponsible and dangerous.” However, in a regular press conference on Tuesday, China’s Defense Ministry downplayed the incident as old news.
Spokesman Yang Yujun told reporters that China has been dealing with U.S. surveillance operations — both by ships and aircraft — in the South China Sea for a long time. “This is not something new. It is an old trick,” Yang said, according to Xinhua. He added that China’s “responses are always necessary, legal, and professional.”
Yang did notice something different about this latest surveillance flight, however – the intensity of media coverage, which he attributed to attempts to smear China’s PLA Navy and drum up more tensions in the South China Sea. “We cannot rule out the possibility that a certain country is looking for an excuse to support future operations,” Yang warned, referring to the United States. In other words, U.S. surveillance operations in the South China Sea are normal, but the publicity push may be a sign the Pentagon is getting ready for something new.
Meanwhile, Yang continued China’s defense of the legality and necessity of its construction activities in the disputed region. “In terms of sovereignty, these projects on the Nansha [Spratly] Islands are not different from any other projects on Chinese territory,” Yang told reporters. He also repeated China’s previous insistence that the new facilities will have civilian uses as well, in addition to their “basic defense functions.” Yang said the new projects could be used for maritime search and rescue operations and disaster relief, as well as providing services for fishermen and navigational aids.
In the latter category, China recently broke ground on two new lighthouses on Cuateron Reef and Johnson South Reef (known as the Huayang and Chigua Reefs in Chinese). The new lighthouses will “provide passing vessels with efficient guidance and aiding services which will substantially improve navigation safety in the South China Sea,” Foreign Minister spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Tuesday.