What should we make of last week's CNN report from on board a US Navy Poseidon P-8 surveillance aircraft, verbally challenged by the Chinese navy ('Leave immediately...you go') as it monitored China's reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands?
CNN's video footage of China's reclamation activities in the Spratlys underscores the game-changing potential of these artificial islands. The scale and speed of construction — a panning shot reveals a runway control tower and other structures already looming above Fiery Cross Reef — is daunting. A flotilla of naval and civilian ships criss-crosses busily as the dredgers operate around the clock. For sheer effect, static imagery falls short by comparison.
More dramatically, the report revealed that eight separate radio challenges were delivered by the Chinese Navy over the course of the flight, warning the crew that they were entering a 'military alert zone' and ordering the aircraft to leave. It seems clear from the P-8 crew's reaction that this was not the first time that approaching aircraft have received such warnings. Despite China's official claims that the reclamation projects are for search and rescue and hosting other civil infrastructure, this footage will strengthen the impression that the PLA is behind the reclamation projects – and effectively calling the shots in the South China Sea.
This was also a case of the US Government delivering its messages via CNN.
Granting media unprecedented access to operational imagery and audio transcripts from the P-8 points to an intensified policy effort to wrest control over a public narrative in the South China Sea that Washington increasingly fears is slipping out of its grasp as China seizes the initiative and foreign policy attention is distracted by crises elsewhere.
More immediately, it suggests US officials are preparing the American public for a tougher line in the South China Sea. Indeed, the CNN report predicted that US warships as well as aircraft may soon be involved in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a course of action that reflects the uncompromising mood in Washington towards China.
Putting America's surveillance of China's land reclamation in the South China Sea into the public realm chimes with a broader US emphasis on promoting transparency in the South China Sea, a concept that plays to US advantages in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Surveillance platforms are generally considered less provocative to deploy, although the P-8 is primarily a submarine hunter and close-in US intelligence-gathering missions by unarmed US vessels and aircraft have long been a bone of contention between Washington and Beijing, reflected in their polar opposite interpretations of international law on this point. (Longer term, the prospect remains for China's navy to adopt a more congruent position on freedom of navigation as it acquires global interests.)
Past US-China confrontations on this narrowly defined issue of freedom of navigation and overflight have mostly occurred close to Hainan island, the site of China's primary naval base in the South China Sea. Last year the US and China agreed an MoU on military encounters in the wake of what US officials described as a 'dangerous, unsafe and unprofessional' intercept by a Chinese fighter jet of a US Navy P-8.
China doesn't yet have the capability to perform aerial intercepts over the Spratlys, much less to enforce a South China Sea-wide ADIZ. Yet if Beijing continues to build up its military facilities in the Spratlys, including possibly with one or more operational airstrips by 2016, the inevitable consequence will be the spread of Sino-US military competition across the South China Sea at large. US Navy ships are already regularly shadowed there by PLA Navy counterparts.
While in the final analysis small islands have inherent defensive weaknesses, US concerns that China's reclamation projects will tilt the psychological balance vis-à-vis rival claimants decisively in Beijing's favour have led US policymakers to reconsider their options. This appears likely to play out in a more muscular and assertive US approach on freedom of navigation and overflight in the weeks and months ahead.