Mere days ago, visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed media reports that revealed a U.S. plan to send aircraft to challenge China, saying the stories did not reflect any political decision by the U.S. government.
Kerry also took the opportunity to underscore the U.S. government's nonpartisan position on the South China Sea issue.
So, when a U.S. P-8A anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft flew over waters off China's Nansha Islands on Wednesday, alarm bells were rung.
Was the move a result of discord between the U.S. military and the U.S. government?
Was there truth in Kerry's earlier statements, or is there cause to doubt the U.S. role in the South China Sea?
The bottom line: Is the U.S. a troubleshooter, as it has always emphasized, or a troublemaker.
Onboard the aircraft was also a CNN team, which it claimed had been given permission by the Pentagon for the first time to "raise awareness about the challenge posed by the islands". Clearly the U.S. wanted to play up China's island construction activities to portray it as a threat to regional stability.
The U.S. has long vowed to defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. However, this tactic of accusing China, whose island construction activities have always been within its own territorial waters, may be ill thought-out.
It was the U.S. military that sent the advanced surveillance aircraft to China's territorial waters. The move is "very likely to cause miscalculation, or even untoward maritime and aerial incidents," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman warned.
It must be remembered that the United States is not even a relevant party in the South China Sea disputes. And despite the U.S. continuing to espouse its "China threat theory", nothing has materialized.
China needs regional peace and stability in the South China Sea more than any other country. The pursuit of hegemony would not suit China aspirations. A peaceful region and South China Sea is imperative to the success of projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
Unfortunately, the surveillance aircraft incident laid bare, again, the seemingly never-ending aim of the U.S. to contain China and spoil China's peaceful development, as seen in its efforts to pivot to Asia, moves to incite the Philippines to confront China, and involve other countries with disputes.
As the world's largest military spender, the U.S. has plenty of resources at its disposal to intimidate China, but such dangerous motions will only create more complications, and will not sway China's resolve to safeguard its core interests.
The U.S. should remember that the bilateral relationship with China is powerful and the two countries are connected on many fronts. This playing of the South China Sea card has dangerous and risky ramifications.