The simmering South China Sea dispute is getting closer to boiling over–with Beijing’s fighter jets buzzing U.S. snoop airliners and now sightings of a high-tech new surveillance drone.”>

China has dramatically intensified members of the army expansion into the disputed water and airspace of the South China Sea.

Deploying ships, jet fighters, and, reportedly, a high-tech surveillance droning, Beijing is moving quickly to cement its asserts on strategic islands, while also forcefully rebuffing Americas own military moves in the region.

The Chinese escalation began in dramatic route on May 10, when the Chinese air force scrambled J-1 1 fighter jets to tail the U.S. Navy destroyer USS William P. Lawrence as the 500 -foot-long warship sailed in international waters 12 miles from a new military installation Beijing has built on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea between Vietnam and the Philippines.

A rapid-fire series of confrontations followed. Chinese airplanes harassed U.S. airliners, sparking alarm inside the Pentagon. And the Chinese air force reportedly deployed its latest snoop droning to peer down at foreign ships, presumably including American ships.

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Northro Gruman Sea Systems/ politenes U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy sent the destroyer USS Chung-Hoon to challenge Chinese territory asserts.

Chinese troops occupy Fiery Cross Reef, but the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan also assert the island. At stake in the China Sea disputes are control over petroleum and natural gas fields, and fisheries worth many billions of dollars.

The Pentagon had sent William P. Lawrence and her approximately 300 sailors to Fiery Cross Reef as part of a so-called freedom-of-navigation operationin other words, as a reminder to Beijing that Washington does not recognize its asserts on Fiery Cross Reef and other islands.

In 2014 and 2015, the Chinese government dredged around several disputed islands in the East and South China Sea, piling sand on top of delicate coral reefs in order to expand the islands and construct space for ports, runways, and military installations.

The outpost construction is part of a deliberate strategy on Beijings part to gradually legitimize its own contested province asserts. China often utilizes a progression of small, incremental steps to increase its effective control over disputed regions, the Pentagon explained in the latest edition of its annual report on the Chinese military.

Normally, Beijing tries to time and tailor its moves just right to avoid escalation to military conflict, the Pentagons China report noted. Rather than deploying heavily armed warships to patrol disputed water, China usually sends gently armed coast guard vesselsor even allegedly sponsors anglers to sail their civilian ships into confrontations with foreign ships.

Now Beijings approach seems to have changed. Either the Chinese government has miscalculated the scale and speed of members of the military response to the passageway of U.S. ships and airliners or it has switched up its strategybecause in recent months, the United States and China have definitely flirted with overt military conflict.

In my opinion, China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea, Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress in February. Youd have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise.

Amid Chinas island-dredging boom, Washington coordinated several freedom-of-navigation operations, sending warships and warplanes to sail and fly around the new island bases.

In March, the American aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis plus the cruisers Antietam and Mobile Bay and the destroyers Chung-Hoon and Stockdale sailed through the South China Sea, prompting Beijing to rescind an invitation for the carrier and her bodyguards to visit Hong Kong. William P. Lawrences jaunt around Fiery Cross Reef arrived simply a few weeks later.

This operation demonstrates, as President Obama has stated, that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits, Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, told The Washington Post. That is[ as] true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.

Beijing defended its response to the destroyers appearance. The American naval boat threatened Chinas sovereignty, security, and interests, told Lu Kang, a spokesman for Chinas foreign ministry. We will take necessary measures to safeguard Chinas sovereignty and territory.

Those measures were more forceful than U.S. officials perhaps expected. On May 17, two Chinese J-1 1 jet fighters took off from Hainan Island, in southern China, and flew within 50 feet of a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane cruising in international airspace near the island. The J-1 1s edged so close to the EP-3 that the American crew had to diving to avoid a collision.

The crew surely recalled a similar incident that occurred in the same region in 2001, when a Chinese fighter actually collided with an EP-3. The Chinese pilot succumbed. The American crew managed to land their injury airplane on Hainan. Chinese authorities jailed the U.S. aviators for more than a weekand held on to their aircraft for more than three months.

The Pentagon condemned the May 17 interception as unsafe.

The

Japan Coast Guard

The Chinese coast guard is on the front line of Beijing’s expansion into the Pacific.

Beijing repudiated that characterization. Information from the relevant Chinese authorities shows that what the U.S. said is not true, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei shot back. The U.S. Navy plane EP-3 was then conducting reconnaissance close to Chinas Hainan[ island ]. In accordance with laws and regulations, the two Chinese military aircraft followed and monitored the U.S. airplane from a safe distance without taking any dangerous actions. Their operation was wholly in keeping with safety and professional standards.

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