If China continues its massive military buildup and claims of sovereignty over man-made islands in the South China Sea, war between the Asian super power and the United States is a possibility, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell tells CNN
"War is 'not in their interests, (and) it's not in our interests,'" Morell told CNN, "but absolutely, it's a risk."
"China is a rising power. We're a status quo power. We're the big dog on the block ... They want more influence," he said. "Are we going to move a little bit? Are they going to push? How is that dance going to work out?
"This is a significant issue for the next president of the United States."
China has taken an aggressive posture over rival territory that includes "fertile fishing grounds and potentially rich reserves of undersea natural resources" and which sees $5 trillion in ship-borne trade pass through it annually.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have claims to the area, according to Reuters
During a U.S. surveillance flight over the islands off Beijing on Wednesday, the Chinese military, speaking in English, issued eight warnings received through the U.S. aircraft’s radio "to please go away … to avoid misunderstanding."
The warnings came from an artificial island built by China approximately 600 miles from its coastline, according to CNN, which had a reporter on board the P8-A Poseidon aircraft.
"In just two years, China has expanded these islands by 2,000 acres — the equivalent of 1,500 football fields — and counting, an engineering marvel in waters as deep as 300 feet," CNN reports.
That’s up from 500 acres last year, according to The Wall Street Journal,
which reported last week that satellite imagery shows China has begun building an airstrip that appears to be large enough to accommodate fighter jets and surveillance aircraft.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the Journal said, is researching options to "send a message to Beijing that the U.S. won’t accede to Chinese territorial claims to the man-made islands in what the U.S. considers to be international waters and airspace."
If the White House approves, those options include deploying the Navy to fly surveillance aircraft over the islands and positioning ships within 12 nautical miles of reefs the Chinese have developed, and claimed, in an area known as Spratly Islands.
This week’s U.S. flight mission, according to CNN, was to monitor three "islands" that, in a matter of months, have gone from "reefs barely peeking above the waves" to "massive construction projects that the U.S. fears will soon be fully functioning military installations."
Development in the South China Sea is seen as another move by Beijing to challenge U.S. dominance in the region, which includes "sailing its first aircraft carrier; equipping its nuclear missiles with multiple warheads; developing missiles to destroy us warships; and, now, building military bases far from its shores."
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