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Try not to blink

May 30 , 2015

AMERICAN officials are losing patience with China. On May 22nd the vice-president, Joe Biden, was blunt. He warned naval-college graduates of “new fault lines” emerging between the great powers. China, he said, was challenging freedom of navigation in the South China Sea by reclaiming land on disputed reefs on a “massive scale”. Two days earlier America had signalled its annoyance by sending a surveillance aircraft close to one of the reefs where China is building an airstrip. Such secretive flights are common, but this one was different. The plane also took a crew from CNN, which broadcast the Chinese navy’s testy response through a radio transmission in English: “Leave immediately, in order to avoid misjudgment.”

Chinese officials and state-controlled media have reacted angrily to America’s rhetorical offensive (reinforced by CNN’s dramatic footage of the spyplane mission over Fiery Cross Reef, showing sand being sucked from the bottom of the sea and sprayed onto the island-in-the-making by Chinese dredgers). On May 25th a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman called on America to end its “provocative behaviour”. Global Times, a state-owned newspaper known for its hardline views, said war would be “inevitable” if America kept complaining about the island-building. On May 24th the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, warned America that those who “hurt others” could “end up hurting themselves”.

Mercifully, the heated words have not so far been matched by hot-headed military behaviour in or above the sea itself. Both America and China are anxious to avoid clashes. But in order to make its point, America is considering moves that might be construed by China as threatening. American spy flights, as well as similar missions by its ships, have so far kept at least 12 nautical miles (22km) away from the reefs they are monitoring. That would be the outer limit of China’s sovereign domain if the reefs were islands (ie, permanently above sea) and were indeed Chinese. Now the Pentagon is considering whether to probe these lines.

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