In recent months, the Pentagon has launched a number of provocative "freedom of navigation" patrols within the 12-mile territorial limit of China’s land-reclamation projects in the Spratly archipelago.
During a closed-door forum on Monday, Sun Jianguo, admiral and deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, stressed that freedom of navigation has never been threatened, but added that further acts of military aggression could have dire consequences.
"When has freedom of navigation in the South China Sea ever been affected? It has not, whether in the past or now, and in the future there won’t be a problem as long as nobody plays tricks," he said.
"But China consistently opposes so-called military freedom of navigation, which brings with it a military threat which challenges and disrespects the international law of the sea. This kind of military freedom of navigation is damaging to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and it could even play out in a disastrous way."
Beijing is stepping up its own presence in the region. On Monday, China’s Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) announced that the country would launch a series of drills. While these exercises will end on Thursday, Beijing has stressed that no civilian vessels are permitted in the area until the drills are complete.
Last Friday, Beijing conducted a freedom of navigation maneuver of its own, with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) flying an H-6K long-range nuclear-capable bomber over Scarborough Shoal, located in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Similarly, the Pentagon has deployed B-52 bombers over the South China Sea, citing "freedom of navigation."
A highly-contested region through which roughly $5 trillion in international trade passes annually, most of the South China Sea is claimed by China, though there are overlapping claims by Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The US has expressed opposition to the construction of a series of artificial islands in the waterway, accusing Beijing of attempting to establish an air defense zone in the region. China maintains it has every right to build within its own territory and that the island will be used primarily for civilian purposes.
The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled last week that Beijing has no legal basis for claiming historical rights to territories within the nine-dash line in the South China Sea. The ruling came as little surprise, given that the United States and its Pacific allies have long pressured China to abandon land reclamation projects in the region.
China refuses to recognize the ruling.