BEIJING • A senior American naval commander has implicitly accused China of creating "so-called military zones" close to artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, declaring that such actions are eroding the security of one of the world's busiest waterways.
In a speech in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Monday, Admiral Scott H. Swift of the US Pacific Fleet said commercial ships that had previously sailed freely through international shipping lanes were being diverted from areas deemed to be too close to the artificial islands built by China in the Spratly archipelago.
Adm Swift, who visited China last month, said that routine commercial and military operations in the area had become subject to warnings, interrupting freedom of navigation, as well as air rights, to such an extent that the "unilateral assertiveness" was becoming a trend that was "unacceptable".
Countries in the region are being forced to finance their navies beyond what is needed for self-defence, he said, implying that this was heightening the risk of an arms race.
Although Adm Swift did not say as much in his speech to a regional security forum, it was clear he was referring to China.
By mentioning "so-called military zones", he was offering a counterpoint to an assertion by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to Washington in September that China did "not intend to pursue militarisation" of islands in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea has become one of the most serious strategic problems between China and the United States, largely because Washington challenges Beijing's right to enlarge tiny specks in the Spratly archipelago into islands big enough to accommodate military runways and radar equipment.
Other claimants of reefs and islands in the Spratlys include Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Tussles between Chinese vessels and fishing trawlers from other nations around the South China Sea have occurred for years.
But the Chinese vessels have been emboldened by a new Chinese law this year that requires foreign fishing vessels to obtain permission to enter waters that China claims.
Trawlers from the Philippines and Vietnam have reported being hosed by Chinese water cannons this year and being robbed at gunpoint. In September, Vietnam said a Chinese vessel had sunk one of its fishing boats near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by China and Vietnam.
Adm Swift's remarks came as the BBC reported that a single-engine Cessna 206 aircraft, rented by one of its television crews for filming the creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea, had been warned by the Chinese navy to turn back as it neared each of three artificial islands.
The plane was identified incorrectly by the Chinese as a military aircraft and ordered to leave the airspace around the islands China has built, the BBC said.
When the plane headed southwest towards Fiery Cross Reef, known as Yongshu Jiao in Chinese, and was close to 20 nautical miles to the reef where the Chinese have built a major runway, a voice came over the radio, the BBC said.
"Foreign military aircraft to north-west of Yongshu Island, this is the Chinese navy. You are threatening the security of our station," the voice said, according to the BBC.
When the plane flew towards Gaven Reefs and Mischief Reef, also places where the Chinese have undertaken construction, there were similar warnings from the Chinese, the BBC said.
As the plane turned back towards the Philippines, it came across a military aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force patrolling the region that had apparently received orders from the Chinese to leave.
The purpose of such flights is to demonstrate to China that countries like Australia and the US do not recognise its newly manufactured islands, reported the BBC.
But it noted the islands do exist and China is already enforcing a 12-nautical-mile exclusion zone around them, or trying to.
NEW YORK TIMES