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‘Leave immediately or you will pay’ – China is warning foreign ships that get close to its island fortresses, but the US Navy isn’t changing a thing

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands, in 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto/Released)

  • China is increasingly issuing stern warnings to foreign ships and planes operating near contested territories in the South China Sea.
  • Varying from past practice, the warnings are now coming from China’s artificial islands, where China has taken steps to fortify its position through the deployment of jamming technology, missiles, and other defense systems.
  • The U.S. Navy says it is unfazed by Chinese activities and will operate wherever international law allows.

The U.S. Navy and allies have noticed an increase in Chinese radio queries to foreign ships and planes operating in the South China Sea, some less than friendly and others downright threatening.

“Leave immediately,” Chinese forces in the disputed Spratly Islands warned earlier this year when a Philippine military aircraft flew to close to a Chinese outpost, according to the Associated Press, citing a Philippine government report. “Philippine military aircraft, I am warning you again, leave immediately or you will pay the possible consequences,” the Chinese military threatened when the plane refused to leave the area.

In the latter half of last year, Philippine military aircraft operating near contested territories, specifically those held by the Chinese, received at least 46 radio warnings. While these warnings have traditionally been delivered by Chinese coast guard units, the messages are now being broadcast by personnel stationed at military outposts in the South China Sea.

“Our ships and aircraft have observed an increase in radio queries that appear to originate from new land-based facilities in the South China Sea,” Cmdr. Clay Doss, a U.S. 7th Fleet spokesperson, told the AP. “These communications do not affect our operations.” The Philippine military also tends to carry on with its activities as planned.

Although China’s extensive claims to the South China Sea were, to a certain extent, discredited by an international arbitration tribunal two years ago, China has continued to strengthen its position in the flashpoint region.

In recent months, China has deployed jamming technology, surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and even heavy bombers to the South China Sea, leading Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to accuse China of “intimidation and coercion” in the tense waterway. Beijing, however, argues that it has a right to defend its sovereign territory, especially considering the increased frequency at which the U.S. Navy conducts freedom-of-navigation operations in the area.

Despite Chinese warnings and objections, the U.S. military has repeatedly made it clear that America will maintain an active military presence in the South China Sea regardless of China’s actions. “International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that’s what we’re doing and we’re going to continue to do that,” Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins said in February.

The U.S. military is also confident in its ability to deal with China’s military outposts in the region should the situation escalate. “The United States military’s had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, told reporters in May. “It’s just a fact.”

China’s activities in the South China Sea led the U.S. to disinvite the People’s Liberation Army Navy from participating in this year’s iteration of the multilateral Rim of the Pacific maritime exercises, and the Philippines has reportedly raised the issue with Beijing on multiple occasions.