BEIJING — China's attempts to claim a nearly 1.4-million-square-mile swathe of open ocean are without precedent and probably without legal merit, but Beijing continues to assert its right to the economically critical zone — and increasingly puts its claims in military terms.
Speaking to a small group of reporters in Beijing on Thursday, a high-ranking Chinese official made his warning clear: The United States should not provoke China in the South China Sea without expecting retaliation.
The so-called "nine-dash line" that China has drawn over most of the South China Sea — a gargantuan territorial claim that stretches about 1,200 miles from its shores — would give Beijing control over a zone that's estimated to handle about half of global merchant shipping, a third of the planet's oil shipping, two-thirds of global liquid natural gas shipments, and more than a 10th of Earth's fish catch. The Obama administration, backed by several Asian governments and entities such as the Brookings Institution, argues that such massive ocean claims at great distance from land are "inconsistent with international law."
China has a growing military presence in the region, including the wholesale raising of islands and construction of airfields on what were once atolls. The U.S. Navy operates there as well, increasingly in concert with regional powers such as the Philippines. Two Chinese fighter jets on Tuesday intercepted and passed within 50 feet of a U.S. military reconnaissance plane.