Washington (CNN)CNN's Jim Sciutto recently got exclusive access to a U.S. Navy surveillance plane on a secret mission near China, where they flew over a string of man-made islands. China's Navy issued eight warnings to the plane and told it to leave the area. On Tuesday, Jim answered questions from the Reddit community during an "Ask me anything" session. Below are highlights from the conversation.
Jim Sciutto Reddit AMA: U.S. military wants China to know they are losing patience
1. If your flight was warned eight times, I guess the flight crew didn't take it very seriously then?
The flight crew was prepared -- and read a scripted response saying that the U.S. considers the airspace there international. Frankly, both sides were very professional and calm, although I did hear frustration in the voice of one of the Chinese Navy radio operators when he yelled, "You go now!"
This was not the first U.S. flight over the islands but it is the first one the U.S. advertised broadly by bringing a TV crew on board. That was intentional and, judging by the Chinese government reaction, seems to have accomplished its goal of sending a message.
2. Did the crew show any change in posture/emotion when the warnings were received?
Frankly, it did not. They have flown these flights before and been challenged by the Chinese Navy before. A few months ago, it was a different story when a Chinese fighter did a barrel roll in front of a U.S. surveillance flight much closer to the Chinese coast. The U.S. formally complained to China and -- I'm told -- China promised it wouldn't happen again.
3. How capable is China of shooting down the aircraft, even if flying at around 15,000 feet? Do eight warnings seem a bit redundant in their case?
Good question: for now, the flights are too far from to Chinese coast to be in range of Chinese fighter aircraft. Chinese naval ships are nearby though -- we saw them! -- and could have the weapons on board to threaten a U.S. aircraft but at this point, firing at a U.S. plane would be a clear act of war and therefore extremely unlikely.
4. If you were on a spy plane ... why announce it to the world?
Again, fair question: clearly, in this case, the U.S. military wanted the world to know. Fact is, by bringing a CNN crew on board, the military wanted not only to show the world the extent of China's activity but also show China that the U.S. is watching and, frankly, losing patience. In terms of sending a message, that tactic seems to have worked.
5. How does this type of access affect your reporting? Is bias not a concern with the networks anymore?
This is a very fair question. It's my personal view that embedding during the second Iraq war often served the military's interests. When you're with troops -- and your life, frankly, depends on them -- it takes a real effort to separate your own point of view from theirs. I faced that challenge myself and hope I found a way to do it. I had the same concern going up in the surveillance flight. All you can do is ask hard questions and attempt to tell both sides of the story as best you can. But we all have to be very vigilant.
6. Do you think that these actions could deteriorate to an armed conflict over these islands?
Though neither side wants it, it is possible. And it most likely wouldn't happen by choice. Rather, the worry is that a Chinese plane comes too close to an American plane or a Chinese ship too close to a U.S. ship. Do they bump? Does one go down? Fact is, this has happened before. In 2001, a Chinese fighter bumped a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane. The Chinese fighter went down, the EP-3 did an emergency and dangerous landing on a Chinese island and were held for several days. The same encounter today, with China's military much stronger, would be extremely dangerous.
7. What cultural factors do you think play into the scenario we are seeing today? Do you think that there is a possibility that cultural misunderstanding is worsening the relationship?
Very good question. I would say it's less cultural differences than a difference in perspective. To many Chinese, they have suffered generations of mistreatment by foreign powers and now they are finally taking their rightful place as a leading nation. Territorial disputes are one demonstration of this. They feel they lost ground during the "weak" years and are now trying to gain it back. In that context, the U.S. military presence in the region is one that many Chinese see as an anachronism that China has every right to challenge. Of course, the U.S. sees it differently, as do many Southeast Asian nations who see the U.S. as a keeper of the peace in the region. A big concern of diplomats on both sides is how to reconcile the inevitable conflict between a rising power and an existing power. As this disagreement shows, they are still trying to find the answer.
8. How likely will these islands also be a point of contention for Japanese and Chinese relations similar to islands in the East China Sea?
There is a real danger there -- and already Chinese and Japanese ships and airplanes have had similar encounters on the sea and in the air -- closer even, than with the U.S. surveillance plane I was on. In recent weeks, the tensions there have ratcheted down but there is no long term settlement to that dispute. And I have the same fear there, as I do regarding the islands in the South China Sea.
9. How great is the capacity for a China-Russia alliance? Could they be a new axis, or is their mutual dislike and history just too much for a mutual hatred of the U.S.?
Great question. There have been signs of increased cooperation. For instance, Russia announced a big deal to sell China natural gas just around the time that Europe was looking for ways to reduce its dependence on Russian gas as the Ukraine crisis grew. But China apparently got the gas at a bargain. So, as they say, no permanent allies, only permanent interests. Russia also has concerns about too many Chinese immigrants to Eastern Russia, so there are tensions still.
10. What is the ecological impact of the man-made islands off the coast of China?
It is a real concern and one that environmentalists say has been lost in the political and diplomatic debate. Fact is, these reefs are -- and have been for a long time -- important ecologically, particularly to fishing. I'm not an expert but dredging up the bottom and covering up the top can't be good.