The Chinese government is paying “close attention” to the new deployment of an American spy plane off the island of Singapore, officials said Wednesday, wary of the possibility a greater U.S. presence in the area will exacerbate tensions in the South China Sea.
“We are paying close attention to how the relevant situation develops, and hope bilateral defense cooperation between the relevant countries is beneficial to regional peace and stability and not the opposite,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday, Reuters reports. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chungying told reporters that the United States’ “regional militarization does not accord with the joint long-term interests of the countries in this region.”
Its remarks regarding new surveillance in the region are markedly less alarmed than when the U.S. Navy conducted a “freedom of navigation” exercise in the region in October. The USS Lassen, which sailed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Spratly Islands, “has threatened China’s sovereignty and security interest, and has put the safety of personnel on the reefs in danger,” the Chinese government said then in response.
The United States has greatly increased its presence in the South China Sea in the last two years, as a response to the unprecedented construction of military facilities by the Chinese government in the region, as well as its continued harassment of foreign nationals of countries who contest China’s claim to the body of water. The South China Sea is disputed by the governments of China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, though only China claims the entire sea.
In 2014, the United States signed an expanded military deal with the Philippines, which contests the Spratly Islands and its neighboring oceans. The pact allows an expanded American military presence in the archipelago and extends their permissions to land there for ten years. Indonesia, too, has expanded its military cooperation with the United States, although it does not contest the South China Sea. Indonesian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein traveled through the South China Sea as a guest of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in early November, a defiant move on Carter’s part immediately following Chinese protests regarding the USS Lassen. Indonesian officials have expressed a desire for an international court to confirm that China’s claims in the region are indefensible.
And now Singapore is providing the United States a place to park and fuel a P-8 Poseidon spy plane in its territory. Carter, in Washington, announced the new plan to conduct intelligence missions in the area. According to a Pentagon official speaking to Foreign Policy, the missions will be “an enhanced defense cooperation agreement that will lay the framework for closer cooperation on a number of areas, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, countering piracy and transnational terrorism, and cyberdefense.”
American officials did not wait a single day longer than the release of a new Associated Press report earlier this week to announce this deal. The AP has found through satellite image evidence that China is constructing between one and three new airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea that it has been illegally building for the past two years, creating an environmental catastrophe. This would quadruple China’s presence in the region, allowing for up to three more surveillance planes to take flight simultaneously, giving China full control of the skies over the resource-rich region. Unlike previous construction, the Chinese government has ceded that these new constructions will have some military uses.