The Clash Over Air Space Above the South China Sea

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Filipino soldiers wave from the dilapidated Sierra Madre ship of the Philippine Navy as it is anchored near Ayungin shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015. Ritchie A. Tongo/Reuters

I had not given much thought to the flight plan of the airline I recently booked to go back to the U.S. from Vietnam, but recent events in the airspace over the South China Sea prompted an online search. As I discovered, my commercial flight would fly not far from where a U.S. surveillance plane was warned to leave on May 20 by a Chinese radar operator.

The P8-A Poseidon, the U.S. military's most advanced surveillance aircraft, was flying near artificial islands that China is constructing, and the order is thought to have come from an early warning radar station on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Island chain, on which the Chinese have been constructing military facilities, which include a 10,000-foot runway.

New satellite images show heightened reclamation work by China at seven sites in the Spratlys, adding around 2,000 acres of land since March 2014. Beijing claimed last month that the new islands would provide weather forecasting and search and rescue facilities for the benefit of other countries, while admitting the islands could also be used for military purposes.

Also on board the P8-A Poseidon was a television crew from CNN, which recorded the American pilot insisting they were flying over international airspace. A commercial flight operated by Delta was also in contact with the Chinese radar operator during the confrontation with the U.S. military aircraft, and assured of safe passage.

Following the incident, both Beijing and Washington accused each other of taking potentially dangerous actions, sparking memories of the 2001 collision between another U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter aircraft. In the 2001 confrontation, the Chinese pilot was killed while the American surveillance crew were detained on Hainan island.

The latest confrontation, along with earlier warnings to Philippine military aircraft to evacuate airspace in the same area, are igniting concern among claimant nations to the waters (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan), as well as the Obama administration.

While China has not officially declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea, it claims the right to establish an ADIZ—similar to the East China Sea ADIZ it introduced in November 2013.

The U.S. response back then was similarly confrontational, as American B-52 bombers were ordered to fly through the zone. Both military and commercial aircraft operating in ADIZs are required to identify themselves or be subject to military intervention.

As tensions of claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea have escalated, the U.S. has repeatedly expressed its desire for freedom of navigation in the waters, which see around $5 trillion in shipments. To reinforce this message, the Pentagon is actively considering the deployment of military aircraft and ships to within 12 nautical miles to patrol the disputed waters and airspace of the Spratly archipelago.

In an apparent response to Wednesday's confrontation, Chinese embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan hoped "relevant parties" would not to take sides "and refrain from playing up tensions." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying added, "Freedom of navigation does not give one country's military aircraft and ships free access to another country's territorial waters and airspace," according to Xinhua, China's state-owned news agency.

Given China's claim to some 90 percent of the South China Sea, how far Beijing is willing to prevent free access to any country's military and ships remains to be seen. "Freedom of Navigation" exercises were conducted by the U.S. military last year, and the combat ship USS Fort Worth just completed a weeklong patrol near the disputed Spratly Islands, where it encountered numerous Chinese warships.

Other regional actors such as the Japanese may become more involved, should they decide to join the U.S. in conducting joint maritime air patrols. Japan held its first joint naval exercise with the Philippines last week in the South China Sea, and has promised to supply Manila with 10 coastguard vessels by the end of the year.

Last week, foreign and local journalists were invited by Manila to tour the Thitu Island, the largest island occupied by the Philippines in the South China Sea. Japan also conducted search and rescue training with Vietnam this week and is supplying used navy patrol boats to Hanoi.

While the latest incident ended relatively quickly, the International Crisis Group warned in a report released last week that clashes in the South China Sea were "becoming more heated and the lulls between periods of tension are growing shorter."

With the flight of the surveillance plane, Washington made it clear it would not tolerate any further restrictions to international airspace over the South China Sea, with Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, saying, "Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the U.S. Navy from operating."

How far Washington will go to preserve freedom of navigation and how far Beijing is willing to assert sovereignty over the 90 percent of the South China Sea it claims remains to be seen. But small-scale skirmishes will continue, and despite warnings in the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, that construction of the artificial islands is the country's "most important bottom line," and that "war is inevitable" unless Washington stops demanding Beijing halt the construction, China is not prepared for conflict with the United States, and the U.S. is not prepared to go to war with China over small piles of sand.

The provocation on May 20 was a carefully crafted combination of hard and soft power from Washington, using not a B-52 bomber but a surveillance plane, and using a television crew to curry international favor. Sometimes using soft power to shame proves vastly more effective than forcing a country to save face with a military challenge.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. This article first appeared on the Foreign Policy Association site.