China and the United States are ramping up a word war after a tense exchange in the South China Sea.
Beijing is insisting it’s entitled to keep watch over airspace and seas surrounding artificial islands it created in disputed waters.
Washington is adamant its aerial patrol was in accordance with international law, Associated Press reported Friday.
The verbal tussle came as the Chinese air force announced its latest offshore training exercises in the western Pacific, part of efforts to boost its combat preparedness.
A Chinese air force spokesman said future such exercises would likely be planned.
A news crew from CNN reported an incident Wednesday in which a Chinese navy dispatcher demanded eight times that a US Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave the area as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work.
It said the US crew responded that they were flying through international airspace, to which the Chinese dispatcher answered: “This is the Chinese navy … You go!”
CNN said it was given exclusive permission to board the surveillance flight because the US wants to raise awareness of China’s island building project.
It also said it was the first time the Pentagon had declassified audio of the Chinese making such challenges.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank posted more video Thursday of the aerial patrol above the Spratly island chain which it said had been released by the US Navy.
Speaking at a regular daily briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing’s insistence on its indisputable sovereignty over the islands it has created by piling sand on top of atolls and reefs.
While saying he had no information about the reported exchange, Hong said China was “entitled to the surveillance over related airspace and sea areas so as to maintain national security and avoid any maritime accidents”.
“We hope relevant countries respect China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea, abandon actions that may intensify controversies and play a constructive role for regional peace and stability,” Hong told reporters at a daily news briefing.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters: “I saw the video. I don’t think I’d call it a confrontation. There were certainly verbal warnings given by the Chinese. It’s unclear on what basis they issued these warnings.”
US military planes operate in accordance with international law in disputed areas of the South China Sea,”she said.
“So the US military has and will continue to operate consistent with the rights, freedoms and lawful use of the sea in the South China Sea.”
China’s construction has intensified frictions among competing parties in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety along with its scattered island groups.
The area that is home to some of the world’s busiest commercial shipping routes is also claimed in part or in whole by the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
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