The US and China yesterday escalated their dispute over contested territory in the South China Sea, after the Chinese repeatedly ordered a US military surveillance plane to abandon flights over areas where it had been building artificial islands.
The continued US surveillance flights in the areas are aimed at challenging the Chinese government's claims of expanded territorial sovereignty. Further raising the challenge, Pentagon officials said they were discussing deployment of warships into waters that the US asserted were international and open to passage, but that China maintains are within its zone of control.
The Defence Department launched the move in response to China's accelerated efforts to build new islands in the South China Sea to bolster claims to a vastly expanded area of sovereignty, a direct challenge to the US and other nations in the region.
Expressing ''strong dissatisfaction'' with the surveillance flights, the Chinese government asked the US to cease actions that risked increasing tensions.
Terming the US flights ''very irresponsible and dangerous,'' foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said these were ''likely to cause an accident.''
The Obama administration, however, stuck to its stand saying the US Navy surveillance flights were made in international airspace.
"The recent surveillance activity by a US plane posed potential threats to China's islands and reefs, making it highly possible to lead to misjudgment, which could cause maritime or air accidents," Lei said, according to a report on state-run CNTV.
The US maintains its planes and ships are exercising internationally recognized freedom of navigation rights in and over the South China Sea.
"The move is very irresponsible and dangerous, putting regional peace and stability in jeopardy. China expresses its strong dissatisfaction," the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman also said. "We urge the US side to vigorously abide by international laws and relevant international rules, and abandon any risky and provocative actions."
According to a commentary on the Xinhua News Agency site, the US should not have a role in the disputed area.
"The South China Sea disputes, to which the United States is not a party, are between China and other claimants and should be handled by those directly involved in a peaceful way," the commentary read, CNN reported.
"Recent statements made by some US military officials are contrary to regional peace and stability, and it is Uncle Sam who should explain its irresponsible behavior."
Washington continues "to flash such threatening signals in an attempt to overbear China to stop its legal construction activities in its own territory," the commentary said.