US steps up South China Sea PR battle with P-8 surveillance flights over Spratlys
Publication:Jane's Defence Weekly
Author:James Hardy, London
The United States has stepped up its pressure on China over its island building programme in the Spratly Islands by releasing video footage and audio recordings of exchanges with Chinese naval ships.
The US Navy (USN) also allowed CNN on a Boeing P-8 Poseidon surveillance flight from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to the Spratlys on 20 May. During the flight the P-8 was warned eight times by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) that it was approaching "a military alert zone" and that it should leave the area "to avoid misjudgement".
On audio recordings released by the US Pacific Fleet, the PLAN can be heard saying, "This is the Chinese Navy, this is the Chinese Navy, this is Chinese sky.
"Foreign military aircraft, this is the Chinese navy, you are approaching our military alert zone. Please leave immediately to avoid misjudgement."
A USN officer repeatedly replies, "I am a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities outside national airspace. I am operating with due regard, as required, under international law."
Speaking in Washington, DC, on 21 May Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a press conference that the US would continue such flights. "We will continue to fully exercise our rights globally to the international space," he said. "Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the US Navy from operating."
Meanwhile, a Pentagon spokesman suggested that the P-8 had not entered the 12 n mile 'territorial' zone around the reefs. US officials told the Wall Street Journal in mid-May that the Pentagon was considering air and surface fleet activities within the 12 n mile zone as part of "freedom of navigation" patrols.
On 22 May Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei condemned the P-8 flight, describing it as "completely irresponsible and completely dangerous".
"Such action is likely to cause an accident; it is completely irresponsible and completely dangerous and detrimental to regional peace and stability," he said. "We express our strong dissatisfaction, we urge the US to strictly abide by international law and international rules and refrain from taking any risky and provocative actions."
As well as highlighting US-Chinese communications, the footage provides more information on China's dredging operations at Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs, among others. Footage taken by the P-8's optical sensors shows dredgers continuing to create new land by cutting away at reef and the seabed; a large number of vessels around a number of different reefs; and progress on the 3,000 m-long airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef.
Airbus Defence and Space imagery of Fiery Cross Reef taken on 13 May provides greater clarity on the progress of construction of the runway, taxiway, and harbour. Since the last imagery was taken of the reef on 18 April Chinese builders have made progress on the runway, installed sea walls, and have begun to solidify the internal harbour wall. This will allow the start of wharf construction and that of support buildings.
The absence of significant building construction at Fiery Cross so far contrasts with other, small sites in the Spratlys such as Hughes Reef. Vietnamese media published photographs on 19 May showing a nine-storey structure on the newly built island at Hughes Reef, which is only a few kilometres from the Vietnamese-occupied Sin Cowe Reef.COMMENT
The decision by the US to publicise operational P-8 surveillance flights over the Spratlys is a major step in the international public relations battle that is taking place between Beijing and Washington over this part of the South China Sea. For military analysts it also provides a rare glimpse of some of the operational capabilities of the P-8, which only entered USN service in November 2013.
Some Asia-Pacific security analysts have suggested that the US is making an error by trying to raise the profile of the South China Sea dispute in this way, pointing out that it has no realistic way to stop China from continuing to build these islands.
It is undeniable that beyond public statements and signalling such as surveillance missions, there is little the US can do to deter China from its current path. That said, it is equally clear that the US believes it has little choice other than become involved in the South China Sea territorial dispute as it is the dominant geo-political issue in Southeast Asia at the moment.
The islands themselves are not the main point, of course; what is at stake is China's sovereignty claims to the whole of the South China Sea - via the nine dashed line - combined with its coercive approach to enforcing those claims. In this scenario, US commitment to freedom of movement and navigation across the South China Sea takes on a much greater role and symbolic importance.
The issue is likely to be the main talking point at the upcoming Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, which Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is attending. US allies, such as the Philippines, will be expecting leadership from Washington on this issue, but what may be most interesting is how the Chinese delegation defends the reclamation project.
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows ongoing construction at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. The runway, approximately 3,000 metres long, will be able to handle all Chinese military aircraft when completed. (CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / IHS)
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows runway sections in various stages of completion at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. (CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / IHS)
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows installation of the harbour wall at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Previous retaining wall installation noted in March 2015 served to restrict the washout of deposited sediment. The concrete wall now under construction will serve as the basis for the harbour interior, allowing installation of piers, berthing, and support structures to commence. (CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / IHS)