BEIJING • American military vessels and aircraft carried out more than 700 patrols in the South China Sea region last year, making China the US' No. 1 surveillance target, a report by China's only state-backed institution dedicated to research of the waters said yesterday.
The patrols pose a threat to China's sovereignty and security interests, said the report by the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, which is headquartered on Hainan island. The document, the first of its kind released by China, warned that continued targeted operations by US patrols would lead to militarisation of the waters.
"China could possibly set up an Air Defence Identification Zone in the South China Sea if the US continues to intensify patrols and low-altitude spying in the region," Dr Wu Shicun, president of the think-tank, told reporters in Beijing.
Tensions in the region rose after China built a web of artificial islands with runways and lighthouses on reefs that it claims are its sovereign territory. But the atmosphere has lightened since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing last month.
Dr Wu said China is considering a "wholesale" deal that will grant Philippine fishing vessels access to disputed Scarborough Shoal waters in the South China Sea.
The "Scarborough Shoal push", if successful, would give hope that the disputes within the area may be diplomatically resolved, he added.
Since 2012, China has used its coast guard to block the waters around the shoal from Filipinos, but Chinese vessels reportedly left the region after Mr Duterte's visit, allowing fishermen to return.
US President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office in January, has accused Beijing of building a military fortress on reefs, saying in March that China's leaders "do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country".
It is very possible for Mr Trump to deploy more vessels in the South China Sea, Dr Wu said, adding that there is only a "very small chance" of military conflict in the region.
A spokesman for the Pacific Fleet in Honolulu was unable to immediately comment on the report.
The document, titled "Report on the Military of the United States of America in the Asia-Pacific Region", also said Japan "provides strong support to the US in the South China Sea". Japan has clashed with China over disputed territory in the East China Sea.
Maritime drills by the US, Japan and Australia were "obviously targeted at China", the report said. The three countries carried out their first drills in July 2015 at various locations around Australia and another in April in the Java Sea.
The proposed deployment in South Korea of the US' Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence will directly undermine the strategic security interests of China and the region, the report said.
China's claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, an international waterway that hosts more than US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) of trade a year, clash with those of five others including Vietnam and the Philippines.
But an international court in July ruled against China's historic rights to the waters, a decision Beijing has ignored. Beijing said the tribunal had no authority to determine territorial sovereignty.
The US carries out so-called "freedom of navigation" operations by sending navy ships and aircraft near disputed waters to demonstrate the right to fly and sail through what it considers to be international waters and airspace.