In the latest serious incident to further prove that China is militarizing its rapidly expanding set of man made islands in one of the most hotly contested bodies of water in the world, a US Navy plane flying 16,500 feet over the South China Sea was unexpectedly contacted by the Chinese and warned to "Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding," according to a new CNN report.
This was one of six radio communicated warnings to a US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane as it reportedly flew safely in international air space early Friday, likely to monitor the string of artificial islands popping up and catching the world by surprise over the past couple years, specifically the new fortifications built upon Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef and Mischief Reef, in the Spratley Islands.
This is similar to last week's Chinese threats against the Armed Forces of the Philippines operating near the islands, who were told, "Leave immediately or you will pay".
Perhaps most interesting about Friday's encounter is that it was all recorded by a CNN reporter and camera crew who were aboard the Navy flight.
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.
Observing the artificial island chains up close, both the aircraft crew and CNN were shocked at just how expansive the military infrastructure on the islands are, noting that in the instance of 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."
The recon flight commander, Lt. Lauren Callen, told CNN, "It was surprising to see airports in the middle of the ocean."
In response to the belligerent Chinese radio communications to "leave immediately" the US crew cited that the plane was conducting lawful activities over international territory. Under international law, a country's airspace is considered to be 12 nautical miles distant from the coastline of the nation.
As long suspected, it appears China has used the man-made islands to lay claim to vast swathes of the South China Sea as falling under its definition of what constitutes sovereign Chinese space.
CNN relates the radio confrontation in the following:
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.
The Chinese government staunchly maintains large areas of the South China Sea have been part of the country's territory "since ancient times."
Listen to the inflight recording to the China's warning below (starts at :50 mark)
Beijing's so called "nine-dash line" encircles as much as 90 percent of the contested waters in the South China see and runs up to 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and within a few hundred kilometers of Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines — all within this vaguely defined zone Beijing claims as within its "historical maritime rights".
The UN estimates that one-third of global shipping passes through the expansive area claimed by China — and crucially there's thought to exist significant untapped oil and natural gas reserves.
The CNN report, while noting missiles were recorded as placed on the Spratly island chain during naval exercises last April, details the following observations during Friday's flyover:
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.
A previously leaked treasure trove of high quality surveillance images, likely from the the Philippine National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), proved Beijing’s drive to militarize the heavily disputed artificially-created islands it controls in the South China Sea.
Though such warnings issued to US military planes and vessels are less common, albeit increasingly frequent, the Philippines' military have had an uptick in threats issued against them, such as multiple incidents this summer.
Despite many Chinese warnings threatening the Philipines, Washington has made it clear that it will maintain and increase an active presence in the region.
“International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that’s what we’re doing, and we’re going to continue to do that,” the Pentagon told the AP last February, and said further that, “The United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands.”
As China and its militarized islands in the South Sea prepare for a military conflict, we must continue asking the very simple question: What could possibly go wrong?