China has fully militarized at least three of the several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby, a senior US military commander said on Sunday.
US Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. John C. Aquilino said the hostile actions were in stark contrast to past assurances by Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing would not turn artificial islands in disputed waters into military bases. The efforts were part of China flexing its military muscle, he said.
“I believe that in the last 20 years we have witnessed the largest military build-up since World War II by the People’s Republic of China”, Aquilino told The Associated Press in an interview, using the initials of China’s formal name. “They have advanced in all their capacities and that accumulation of weapons is destabilizing for the region.”
There was no immediate comment from Chinese officials. Beijing maintains that its military profile is purely defensive, willing to protect what it says are its sovereign rights. But after years of increased military spending, China now boasts the second largest defense budget in the world after the United States and it is rapidly modernizing its force with weapons systems including the J-20 stealth fighter, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers, with a third under construction.
Aquilino spoke to the AP aboard a US Navy reconnaissance plane that flew near Chinese-controlled outposts in the Spratly Archipelago of the South China Sea, one of the most disputed regions in the world. During the patrol, the P-8A Poseidon aircraft was repeatedly warned by Chinese callers that it illegally entered what they said was Chinese territory and ordered the aircraft to move away.
“China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, as well as the surrounding maritime areas. Please stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment,” one of the stern radio messages said in a veiled threat.
But the US Navy plane dismissed multiple warnings and defiantly went ahead with its reconnaissance in brief but tense moments witnessed by two AP journalists invited on board. “I am a sovereign immune US naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” an American pilot responded by radio to the Chinese.
“The exercise of these rights is guaranteed by international law and I am operating with due regard to the rights and duties of all states”said.
Navy Commanding Officer Joel Martinez, who led the crew of the P-8A Poseidon, said there has been an incident when a Chinese plane flew close to a US plane in a dangerous maneuver in the disputed region. The US flight crew calmly reminded the Chinese to abide by aviation security regulations, he said.
As the P-8A Poseidon flew as low as 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) near Chinese-occupied reefs, some appeared to be like small cities on screen monitors, complete with multi-story buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways and round white structures that Aquilino said were radars. Near Fiery Cross, more than 40 unspecified vessels could be seen apparently anchored.
Aquilino said the construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military installations at Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross appeared to be complete, but it remains to be seen whether China will continue military infrastructure construction in other areas.
“The function of those islands is to expand the PRC’s offensive capability beyond its mainland shores,” he said. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”
He said any military and civilian aircraft flying over the disputed waterway could easily come within range of the Chinese islands’ missile system.
“So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so concerning for the militarization of these islands,” he said. “They threaten all nations operating in the vicinity and all international sea and airspace.”
China tried to shore up its vast territorial claims over virtually the entire South China Sea by building island bases on coral atolls nearly a decade ago. The United States responded by sending its warships through the region on what it calls freedom of operation missions. The United States has no claims but has deployed Navy ships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote free navigation in international waterway and airspace.
China routinely opposes any US military action in the region. The other parties, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, claim all or part of the sea, through which an estimated $5 trillion in goods are shipped each year.
Despite China’s aggression, simmering territorial conflicts should only be resolved peacefully, Aquilino said, citing the Philippine government’s successful move to take its disputes with China to international arbitration in 2013 as a good template.
A UN-backed arbitration tribunal that handled the case invalidated China’s sweeping historic claims in the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing dismissed the ruling as a sham and continues to challenge it.
Washington‘s main goal in the disputed region is to “prevent war” through deterrence and promote peace and stability, including by engaging US allies and partners in projects to that end, Aquilino said.
“If deterrence fails, my second mission is to be prepared to fight and win,” said Aquilino, who leads America’s largest combatant command with 380,000 military and civilian personnel covering 36 nations and territories.
(with information from AP)
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