As the United States Navy reconnaissance plane banked low near Mischief Reef in the South China Sea early this month, a Chinese warning crackled on the radio.
“U.S. military aircraft,” came the challenge, delivered in English in a harsh staccato. “You have violated our China sovereignty and infringed on our security and our rights. You need to leave immediately and keep far out.”
Aboard the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, flying in what is widely considered to be international airspace, Lt. Dyanna Coughlin scanned a live camera feed showing the dramatic evolution of Mischief Reef.
Five years ago, this was mostly an arc of underwater atoll populated by tropical fish and turtles. Now Mischief Reef, which is off the Philippine coast but controlled by China, has been filled out and turned into a Chinese military base, complete with radar domes, shelters for surface-to-air missiles and a runway long enough for fighter jets. Six other nearby shoals have been similarly transformed by Chinese dredging.
“I mean, this is insane,” Coughlin said. “Look at all that crazy construction.”
A rare visit on board a U.S. Navy surveillance flight over the South China Sea pointed out how profoundly China has reshaped the security landscape across the region.
The country’s aggressive territorial claims and island militarization have put neighboring countries and the United States on the defensive, even as President Donald Trump’s administration is stepping up efforts to highlight China’s controversial island-building campaign.
In congressional testimony before assuming his new post as head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in May, Adm. Philip Davidson sounded a stark warning about Beijing’s power play in a sea through which roughly one-third of global maritime trade flows.
“In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” Davidson said, an assessment that caused some consternation in the Pentagon.