US, Chinese aircraft in 'unsafe' encounter over South China Sea

China's Defense Ministry has told state media that the US should eliminate "the root causes of accidental incidents." A US defense official said aircraft came within 300 meters of each other over the strategic sea.

The US Pacific Command on Friday said a Chinese early warning aircraft and a US Navy patrol plane experienced an "unsafe" encounter over the South China Sea, marking the first of its kind under President Donald Trump's administration.

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The American aircraft had been on a "routine mission operating in accordance with international law," Pacific Command said in a statement.

The two aircraft came within approximately 300 meters (1,000 feet) of each other on Wednesday, a US defense official told Reuters news agency. The official added that such incidents are relatively uncommon.

China's Defense Ministry told the Communist Party's English-language newspaper "Global Times" that the pilot responded into the incident with "legal and professional measures."

"We hope the US side will focus on the relationship between the two countries and two militaries in their entirety, adopt concrete measures and eliminate the root causes of accidental incidents between the two countries on sea and in the air," said a defense official, according to the newspaper.

The South China Sea has been a thorn in relations between Washington and Beijing. China claims nearly all of the strategic sea, while the US stresses the need for freedom of navigation.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

Runway

China is expanding the construction of its facilities on Fiery Cross Reef. Provided by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), this June 28, 2015 photo reveals Beijing has nearly completed a 3,000 meter (9,800-foot) airstrip, long enough to accommodate most Chinese military aircraft. Two helipads, up to 10 satellite communications antennas, and one possible radar tower are also visible.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

Expansion

Reclamation on Fiery Cross Reef, which lies on the west side of the Spratly Islands, began in August of 2014 and its principal landmass was finished by November. Dredgers have created a land mass that spans the entire existing reef and is approximately 3,000 meters long and 200-300 meters wide.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

Facilities

This picture taken last November shows construction work being carried out on Fiery Cross Reef. The reef reportedly already houses a helicopter landing pad, a 300-meter-long wharf, a harbor large enough to dock military tankers, barracks and artillery emplacements.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

South Johnson Reef

This reef was one of the first facilities to finish principal land reclamation. This recent picture shows that a radar tower is nearing completion at the north end of the land mass. According to AMTI, a new large multi-level military facility has been built in the center of the island. Up to six surveillance towers are being constructed alongside four possible weapons towers.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

A naval base?

Beginning in early 2015, Mischief Reef - also located in the Spratlys - has undergone extensive reclamation activity. Experts say that the recent widening of the southern entrance to the reef, coupled with sightings of Chinese navy vessels, may suggest a future role for the reclaimed reef as a naval base. Taken on March 17, this image shows a chain of small land formations at the reef.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

From reef to island

Significant construction on Gaven Reef began in 2014, with a total of 114,000 square meters of land already created. Satellite pictures show just how fast construction has progressed on the reef. A new artificial island was created between March (left) and August (right) 2014.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

Troop garrison

According to AMTI, China has had a troop garrison on Gaven Reef since 2003, which has included a large supply platform where ships can dock. Experts say a new main square building in the reef appears to be an anti-aircraft tower.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

A standardized process

As seen in this image, the basic process of expanding these features involves dredging sand from the seafloor and dumping it onto the reefs. The structure is raised above the high water line, hiding the status of the bank or reef beneath. The sand is then smoothed out and workers surround the island with a concrete barrier to protect against erosion and storm surge, and begin construction.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

'Historic rights'

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich waterway, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The US Pacific Fleet commander recently said China was "creating a great wall of sand" in the South China Sea, causing serious concerns about its territorial intentions. Beijing argues it is asserting its so-called "historic rights" to maritime resources in the area.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

Territorial disputes

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims, which have led to territorial disputes in the area. Last summer, China's deployment of a massive oil rig in waters also claimed by Hanoi escalated tensions in the region, sparking a standoff at sea and violent anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

US concerns

Washington is concerned China's efforts carry a military dimension that could undermine the US' naval and economic power in the Pacific, and has weighed sending warships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles of the new artificial islands. Washington has repeatedly called on Beijing and others to end reclamation projects in the disputed waters, but Beijing rejects those demands.

Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea

Ecological impact

The Philippines filed a formal plea at the UN last year, challenging Beijing's territorial claims. Manila said China's reclamation activities are causing "irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea." It also claimed that the destruction of coral reef systems is estimated to cause economic losses valued at $100 million annually.

'Massive military complex'

Under former US President Barack Obama's administration, Washington criticized Beijing's construction of military outposts on artificial islands.

In December, President Donald Trump took to his preferred social media platform to lambast Beijing for its military activities in the South China Sea.

"Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the US doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so," he said in a two-tweet tirade.

However, following a phone call with President Xi Jinping, the White House on Friday said Trump vowed to respect the "one China" policy, which sees the mainland and Taiwan as a single entity.

In 2001, a Chinese jet fighter collided with an American surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea, leaving the Chinese pilot dead and prompting a diplomatic dispute.

Beijing detained 24 US crew members on the aircraft for 10 days. In the wake of the incident, both countries signed an agreement to prevent similar occurrences.

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ls/sms (Reuters, dpa, AP)