US naval patrols threaten sovereignty, China think tank warns
American military vessels and aircraft carried out more than 700 patrols in the South China Sea region during 2015, making China the U.S.'s No. 1 surveillance target, according to a report by China's only state-backed institution dedicated to research of the waters.
The patrols pose a threat to China's sovereignty and security interests, said the report by the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, which is headquartered in Hainan island. The document, the first of its kind released by China, warned that continued targeted operations by U.S. patrols would lead to militarization of the waters.
"China could possibly set up an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea if the U.S. continues to intensify patrols and low-altitude spying in the region," Wu Shicun, president of the think tank, told reporters in Beijing.
Tensions in the region have risen after China built a web of artificial islands with runways and lighthouses on reefs that it claims are its sovereign territory. Donald Trump, who is preparing to take over the U.S. presidency in January, has accused Beijing of building a military fortress on reefs, saying in March that China's leaders "do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country."
"It's very possible for President-elect Donald Trump to deploy more vessels in the South China Sea," Wu said, adding that there's only a "very small chance" of military conflict in the region.
A spokesman for the Pacific Fleet in Honolulu was unable to immediately comment on the report.
The document, titled "Report on the Military of the United States of America in the Asia-Pacific Region," also said that Japan "provides strong support to the U.S. in the South China Sea." Japan has clashed with China over disputed territory in the East China Sea.
Maritime drills carried out by the U.S., Japan and Australia were "obviously targeted at China," the report said. The three countries carried out their first drills in July 2015 at various locations around Australia and another in April in the Java Sea.
The proposed deployment of the U.S. missile system known as the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense in South Korea will directly undermine the strategic security interests of China and the region, the report said.
"With the Obama administration advancing its strategic pivot and rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific, increased military spending, strengthened alliances and partnerships, and expanded scope of military activity are attestations of the apparent expansion and fast track bolstering of American military presence in the region," the report said.
"This is especially so in the adjacent areas of the South China Sea, where U.S. military activity has never been more energetic," it said.
China's claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, an international waterway that hosts more than $5 trillion of trade a year, clash with five others including Vietnam and the Philippines. China's claims were rejected by an international court in July, which found they had no legal basis. Beijing has ignored the ruling.
The U.S. carries out so-called "freedom of navigation" operations by sending Navy ships and aircraft near disputed waters to demonstrate the right to fly and sail through what it considers to be international waters and airspace.