On May 20 2015, an American plane named the P8-A Poseidon – the US military’s most advanced surveillance aircraft – flew near China’s artificial island bases in the Spratly Chain. Chinese forces ordered the aircraft to leave the area, thought to be from the Fiery Cross Reef which has been contested by the Philippines, China and Vietnam among others. On board the flight was a CNN television crew which record a US pilot flying over international airspace.
A commercial flight operated by Delta was also in contact with the Chinese radar operator during the confrontation with the US military aircraft, and assured of safe passage.
The incident caused fury between Beijing and Washington, who threw accusations at each other of dangerous movements in the region.
The feud was reminiscent of the 2001 collision between another US 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.
Even today, the movements of aircraft risk sending the US and China into an accidental conflict.
In February 2018, it emerged that China President Xi Jinping was preparing to significantly boost Beijing’s military prowess in the region, sending J-20 and Russian Su-35 fighter jets to the South China Sea.
The thinking behind the move involved strengthening the Chinese People’s Liberation Army ability to watch its rivals from above the contested region.
The Su-35 would have represented a concern for US military. It is powered by two turbofan engines, giving it a range of about 3,500km on internal fuel, making it one of the most advanced multi-role fighters.
The US have also made aviation a central part of their efforts to challenge China in the region however, regularly sending aircraft carriers into the waters of the South China Sea, therefore allowing F-35 fighter jets a base from which they can circle hotly contested areas.
With presence in the air growing on both sides of the dispute, China and the US are having to approach actions in the South China Sea with caution in order to avoid an inadvertent breakout of violence.
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This hostility is particularly risky near the Spratly Island chain, home to seven Chinese island bases.
The moving of its aircraft carriers, airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.”
A leaked set of photos given to a Filipino newspaper showed just how elaborate China’s development of military bases has been.
Some photographs showed cargo ships and supply vessels, which the newspaper said appeared to be delivering construction materials to the China-controlled islands.
Others show runways, hangars, control towers, helipads and radomes as well as a series of multistorey buildings that China has built on reefs.
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