BEIJING (AP) — China said Thursday it is entitled to keep watch over airspace and seas surrounding artificial islands it created in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, following an exchange in which its navy warned off a U.S. surveillance plane. The United States said its aerial patrolling was in accordance with international law.
The comments came as the Chinese air force announced its latest offshore training exercises in the western Pacific as part of efforts to boost its combat preparedness. An air force spokesman said that followed an initial offshore drill held last month and future such exercises would likely be planned.
A news crew from CNN reported it witnessed an incident Wednesday in which a Chinese navy dispatcher demanded eight times that a U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Speaking at a regular daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reiterated 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."