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Story highlights

China points finger at Washington for increasing tensions in South China Sea region

The U.S. says it plans to continue to assert freedom of navigation rights

China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have claimed all or parts of South China Sea

CNN —  

The Chinese government is calling U.S. surveillance flights over the South China Sea a threat to peace in the region and warning that they could lead to accidents in the air or at sea.

The message was delivered after the U.S. military on Wednesday undertook a reconnaissance flight on which a CNN crew flew.

“The recent surveillance activity by a U.S. plane posed potential threats to China’s islands and reefs, making it highly possible to lead to misjudgment, which could cause maritime or air accidents,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, according to a report on state-run CNTV.

The CNN crew was aboard a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon, an anti-submarine and surveillance jet, as it patrolled islands that Beijing is using to extend its zone of influence in the disputed area.

The Chinese navy issued warnings to the U.S. Navy jet eight times during the flight, telling it to leave the area. The United States maintains its planes and ships are exercising internationally recognized freedom of navigation rights in and over the South China Sea.

“The move is very irresponsible and dangerous, putting regional peace and stability in jeopardy. China expresses its strong dissatisfaction,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman also said. “We urge the U.S. side to vigorously abide by international laws and relevant international rules, and abandon any risky and provocative actions.”

The comments were one in several postings on Chinese news services Friday pointing a finger at Washington for increasing tensions in the region.

A commentary on the Xinhua News Agency site said the United States should not have a role in the disputed area.

“The South China Sea disputes, to which the United States is not a party, are between China and other claimants and should be handled by those directly involved in a peaceful way,” the commentary read.

“Recent statements made by some U.S. military officials are contrary to regional peace and stability, and it is Uncle Sam who should explain its irresponsible behavior.”

Washington continues “to flash such threatening signals in an attempt to overbear China to stop its legal construction activities in its own territory,” the commentary said.

Wednesday’s Poseidon flight followed a patrol by the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth last week through the South China Sea.

The United States says it plans to continue to assert freedom of navigation rights in the region, parts of which have been claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The competing territorial claims cover an area that includes fertile fishing grounds and potentially rich reserves of undersea natural resources. China is increasingly showing that even far from its mainland, it sees itself as having jurisdiction over the body of water.

Wednesday’s mission was specifically aimed at monitoring Chinese activities on three islands that months ago were reefs barely peeking above the waves. Now they are massive construction projects that the United States fears will soon be fully functioning military installations.

The Pentagon allowed a journalist to participate in the flight and release video and audio of the patrol for the first time to raise awareness about the challenge posed by the islands as well as the growing U.S. response.

CNN’s Kevin Wang and Jim Sciutto contributed to this report.