China warns BBC plane away from artificial South China Sea island

This screenshot from a BBC news video shows extensive construction efforts by the Chinese at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, including a runway capable of accommodating military aircraft. A small plane chartered by the BBC drew a warning from the Chinese navy after it flew near the artificial island, according to a recent report.

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 14, 2015

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — A small plane chartered by a BBC news crew drew a warning from the Chinese navy after it flew near a Chinese-built artificial island in the South China Sea, according to a recent report.

The BBC report includes a Chinese dispatcher telling an Australian aircraft to “leave immediately,” as it flew over international airspace.

The video shows China’s extensive construction efforts at Mischief Reef, including what appeared to be a factory and a runway capable of accommodating military aircraft.

China’s extensive artificial island-building in the South China Sea and its claim of “indisputable sovereignty” over what much of the world considers international waters have drawn stern rebukes from the United States and its allies during the past few years.

On Oct. 27, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Lassen conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near Subi Reef, another Chinese artificial island, which drew protest from Beijing.

The BBC-chartered aircraft flew 140 nautical miles (about 160 miles) from Palawan Island in the Philippines until it came within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, according to the video.

“Foreign military aircraft in northwest of Meiji Reef, this is Chinese navy,” the Chinese dispatcher said over the radio. “You are threatening the security of our station. In order to avoid miscalculations, please stay away this area and leave immediately.”

“Chinese navy, we are a civilian single-engine aircraft carrying passengers to Palawan Island,” the BBC’s pilots replied.

The Chinese navy continued to send out the warning message, according to the report.

Video footage showed roughly 20 ships near the reef. Most of the ships appeared to be cargo craft, although two were warships, according to the report.

One of the ships bore a resemblance to a modern Chinese frigate, though it is difficult to tell from the camera’s distance.

Afterward, the Chinese dispatcher issued the same warning to another plane.

That aircraft cited the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to reinforce its right to fly in the disputed airspace.

“China navy, China navy, we are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights in international airspace,” a pilot said.

China maintains an ambiguous claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea based on what it views as ancient historical claims.

However, the Law of the Sea bars nations from claiming territorial seas around submerged reefs, as Mischief Reef is believed to be by most nations. Artificial construction on a submerged reef doesn’t turn it into claimable land, according to international maritime law.

Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia all hold competing claims to some or all of the rocks, reefs and islands that dot the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, China has added more than 2,900 acres of land to seven of its eight occupied outposts in the Spratly Islands since December 2013, according to a Pentagon report from June.

About $5 trillion in global trade transits the South China Sea annually, including $1.2 trillion in annual trade bound for the U.S. mainland, according to U.S. government statistics.



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