South China Sea crisis: China scrambles military aircraft reef amid increased US activity

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According to recent satellite imagery, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed the two military warfare aircraft on a permanent based on the reef. Chinese experts claim the Communist state has the right to leave defensive weapons there.

Previously satellite images revealed aircraft hangars near the airstrip oil the reef had been installed.

Taiwan local media report the PLA is planning an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea region is a disputed territory where it faces rival ownership claims from China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Diplomatic relations between the nations, which have laid claim to the islands, are already extremely strained.

The recent construction of bunkers on some of the atolls points to China preparing to “protection against air or missile strikes”, raising the prospect of a potential conflict.

The islands and surrounding reefs have been the subject of a bitter and long-running territorial dispute, with China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines all laying claim to parts of the archipelago.

Earlier this month, China hit out at Vietnam’s fishing protest in the South China Sea days after Beijing issued a ban on trawlers in part of the disputed waters.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said its neighbour had no right to comment on the annual summer prohibition on fishing, insisting China had every right to issue such a ban.

The rebuke came after Vietnam last week resisted China’s decision to kick its fishermen out of the sea on May 1 and will not be allowed to return until mid-August.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry hit out at the ban and said China should not “further complicate the situation in the South China Sea”.

Vietnam’s protest came weeks after the country claimed one of its boats had been rammed by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel.

The two countries have for years been embroiled in a bitter dispute over the stretch of water.

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Last week, a standoff between China and Malaysia over the potential natural gas and oil reserves beneath the South China Sea appeared to end as both vessels moved away from each other.

Tensions between the US and China have increased due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and this week, Independence-class US Navy littoral combat ships were spotted patrolling the much-disputed South China Sea.

Last week, the US Air Force and Marines conducted training exercises in the area with three submarines joining ships and aircraft in the nearby Philippine Sea.

The actions are thought to be a reaction to Chinese harassment of ships drilling for resources in nearby waters.

Back in April, three US ships joined the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta and sailed to the region to demonstrate a commitment to keeping the sea open.

Rear Admiral Fred Kacher, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 7, said: “The versatility and flexibility of Independence-variant littoral combat ships rotationally deployed to Southeast Asia is a game changer.

“Like Montgomery’s previous operations, Gabrielle Giffords’ operations near West Capella (the drill ship) demonstrate the depth of capability the US Navy has available in the region.

“There is no better signal of our support for a free and open Indo-Pacific than positive and persistent US Naval engagement in this region.”

Vice Adm. Bill Mer added that the US will continue to operate in South China Sea waters as long as international laws permits.

He said: “Routing presence operations, like Gabrielle Giffords’, reaffirms the US will continue to fly and sail freely, in accordance with international law and maritime norms, regardless of excessive claims or current events.

“The US supports the efforts of our allies and partners in the lawful pursuit of their economic interests.”

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