The ongoing series of territorial disputes in the South China Sea continues to make headlines, as today the Chinese government spoke out against American spy plane flights in the area. Specifically, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying stated that “[The Chinese government] urge[s] the U.S. to correct its error, remain rational and stop all irresponsible words and deeds.”
China and the United States have been engaged in a battle for influence in the South China Sea; which Beijing claims almost in its entirety. Conversely, many nations bordering the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia dispute Chinese claims (the so called Nine Dash Line), arguing that Beijing is infringing on their sovereignty. This has led to a series of bilateral territorial disputes with China, as well as smaller nations courting the United States in efforts to balance against China.
One of the hot-spots in the region are the Spratly Islands. This is the same area American spy planes flew over today, and where China is engaged in island building activities. These activities consist of Chinese ships dredging the area around atolls and small outcroppings, to create larger islands, upon which Beijing seeks to construct airfields and ports. While China does not dispute freedom of navigation in the region, it is engaged in a skirmish with the United States over so called Air Defence Identification Zones.
These zones are the airspace over and near sovereign territory, and are administered by each country. Aircraft flying through these zones must identify themselves to the relevant authorities on the grounds, in order to screen for hostile intent and manage air traffic. China is attempting to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone over the South China Sea, a move that the United States does not recognize. Consequently, American planes have not been acquiescing to Chinese identification requests upon entering the zone.
This in turn has resulted in China scrambling aircraft to escort American planes in the area: a common tactic, used by America as well in its dealings with long-range Russian ‘Bear’ bombers. The dispute over air defense identification zones is merely another facet in the complex regional power game for control of the various islands in the South China Sea.