China announced Monday during U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s trip to the country, it would begin regular air patrols over the South China Sea, defiantly rejecting an international tribunal’s ruling last week that China held no territorial rights in the region.
China’s official news agency said combat air patrols, including the full Chinese air arsenal, over the South China Sea would be “regular practice.” The air patrol announcements came shortly after a statement that China will militarily close off parts of the South China Sea to conduct war drills. The U.S. routinely exercises its right of freedom of navigation on the South China Sea, and conducts surveillance flights over Chinese military installations.
Prior to the international tribunal ruling, a leading Chinese propaganda arm said the Chinese people should prepare for war in the South China Sea.
“Even though China cannot keep up with the U.S. militarily in the short-term, it should be able to let the U.S. pay a cost it cannot stand if it intervenes in the South China Sea dispute by force,” the editorial said.
Chinese confrontation with the U.S. in the South China Sea is not unprecedented. A Chinese aircraft was trying to harrass a U.S. surveillance Navy EP-3 aircraft over the South China Sea in April 2001. The Chinese aircraft collided with the plane, forcing the EP-3 to land on Hainan island, sparking a tense diplomatic incident between the U.S. and China. The U.S. eventually issued a letter of apology to China, in return for the Navy crew of 10.
The U.S. called upon China to respect other countries’ sovereign claims in the South China Sea, which include the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The South China Sea is a vital trade juncture for the world economy.
The Council on Foreign Relations noted in 2015 that 5.3 trillion dollars of world goods moved through the South China Sea, with 1.2 trillion of that bound for U.S. shores. Any disruption in this shipping channel would throw world markets into chaos. China has shown a willingness to curtail freedom of navigation in favor of its territorial claims in the South China Sea, worrying the U.S. and its allies.
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