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US military gives rare insight into US-China relations -

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KIM LANDERS: For the first time, the US military has given an insight into its increasingly tense exchanges with China over disputed maritime territory in Asia.

A US spy plane monitoring Beijing's island-building program in the South China Sea has given a news crew a rare first-hand look at what happens when the two sides confront each other.

And with the US vowing to continue patrols in the area, security experts say it's only a matter of time before Australia is forced to play a role.

Bill Birtles reports.

CHINESE RADIO VOICE: This is Chinese navy. This is Chinese navy. Please go away quickly.

BILL BIRTLES: This is what diplomacy between the world's two biggest military powers sounds like at the frontline.

US RADIO VOICE: I am a US military aircraft. I am operating with due regard as required under international law.

BILL BIRTLES: A US Poseidon surveillance aircraft responds to repeated warnings by the Chinese navy as it flies at 15,000 feet above the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

CHINESE RADIO VOICE: Please go away quickly. You go!

BILL BIRTLES: Eight times the Chinese navy makes contact, telling the US crew to fly away from the area.

On the sea's surface, footage broadcast by CNN shows dozens of Chinese dredging ships, pumping sand onto reefs and building large runways and structures.

One by one, a new chain of man-made islands is being formed in the Spratly archipelago, jointly claimed by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor with the Australian Defence Force Academy, says the island reclamation process has accelerated rapidly.

CARL THAYER: Before China began, the largest feature was Itu Aba, or Taiping Island, occupied by Taiwan. It's a legitimate island under international law. It's naturally formed and can support habitation and has an economic function.

They've now created space four times larger than that. So China has on one constructed a runway over 3,000 metres. That can take any type of military aircraft. The challenge to the Poseidon 8 came from radar and Chinese navy facilities already on that island.

So China's in fact massively enlarged the area, created forward operating bases and they have a potential military function.

BILL BIRTLES: China isn't the only country reclaiming land. Vietnam has also been dredging sand to reinforce islands and atolls that it holds, while the Philippines has placed structures on its islands, including a rusting ship that houses soldiers.

Speaking from Hanoi, where he's attending an Australia-Vietnam defence dialogue, Professor Thayer says those efforts don't compare to the scale of China's activities.

CARL THAYER: So I'll give you a figure: 1.9 per cent. That's what Vietnam has reclaimed as compared to the total amount - 2,000 acres - what China has claimed. And in fact China has stopped land reclamation on four of the main features 'cause they're finished.

And they're now building nine-storey buildings, long-range alert radar and integrating it. And their challenges to Philippine and American aircraft - calling it a military security area - is an indication that they consider this a sovereign Chinese territory.

BILL BIRTLES: The US concern over China's activity in the vital maritime trade area has been reflected in Washington's move to rotate marines through Darwin.

While both Australia and the US refuted recent comments by a senior US defence official that there are plans to base B-1 bombers in Australia, international relations specialist Nick Bisley from La Trobe University says such a move wouldn't be surprising.

NICK BISLEY: The agreement was signed in 2011. And it was in the document right from the start that it was going to involve not just marines coming to do training exercises but regular deployments of, you know, a whole range of US aircraft.

And I think from 2012 they've been negotiating about runway extensions, strengthening and deepening. So this has been on the cards and I think when the official "misspoke" - as he's reported to have said - in Congress last week, he misspoke in the sense of publicly. But privately, these discussions have been going on.

BILL BIRTLES: The US military is vowing to ramp up its movements in the South China Sea to assert freedom of navigation near the islands that China is building.

Professor Bisley says Australia is locked in to the US alliance and may have to at some point play a role.

NICK BISLEY: It means we're much more clearly part of an effort to defend what America sees as a broader regional settlement that is at risk through China's actions.

BILL BIRTLES: But he doesn't believe confrontation is inevitable.

And Carl Thayer says, even if it did happen, the US wouldn't necessarily need Australia's support.

CARL THAYER: China will challenge and be prickly but it won't use armed force, 'cause it knows it would trigger the alliance. And taking on the United States rather than a weak ally like the Philippines: I don't think China's ready to do that.

So it's really a question of Australia asserting its backing of international law and supporting the United States in freedom of navigation because Australia itself has an interest in it.

KIM LANDERS: Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer from the Australian Defence Force Academy, speaking from Hanoi to our reporter, Bill Birtles.