High above one of the most hotly contested regions in the world, CNN was given a rare look Friday at the Chinese government’s rapidly expanding militarization of the South China Sea.
Aboard a US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane, CNN got a view from 16,500 feet of low-lying coral reefs turned into garrisons with five-story buildings, large radar installations, power plants and runways sturdy enough to carry large military aircraft.
During the flight the crew received six separate warnings from the Chinese military, telling them they were inside Chinese territory and urging them to leave.
“Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding,” a voice said.
The US Navy jet flew past four key artificial islands in the Spratly chain where China has built up fortifications: Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef and Mischief Reef.
On Subi Reef, the Poseidon’s sensors picked up 86 vessels, including Chinese coast guard ships, moored in a giant lagoon, while on Fiery Cross Reef rows of hangers stood alongside a lengthy runway.
“It was surprising to see airports in the middle of the ocean,” said Lt. Lauren Callen, who was leading the air combat crew aboard the Navy flight.
Each time the aircraft was challenged by Chinese military, the US Navy crew’s response was the same.
“I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” the response said.
“In exercising these rights guaranteed by international law, I am operating with due regard for the rights and duties of all states.”
CNN has reached out to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.
The Chinese government staunchly maintains large areas of the South China Sea have been part of the country’s territory “since ancient times.”