China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Seaarmed 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 in the vicinity, a top U.S. military commander said Sunday.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral John C Aquilino, said the hostile actions stood in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s earlier assurances that Beijing would not turn the artificial islands in disputed waters into military bases. The effort was part of China’s development of its military muscles, he said.
“Over the last 20 years, we have witnessed the largest military build-up since World War II of China,” Aquilino told the Associated Press in an interview, using the initials in China’s formal name. “They have advanced all their capabilities and the build-up of weapons is destabilizing for the region.”
There were no immediate comments from Chinese officials. Beijing maintains that its military profile is purely defensive, designed to protect what it says is its sovereign rights. But after years of increased military spending, China now boasts the world’s second-largest defense budget after the United States and is rapidly modernizing its force with weapons systems, including J-20 stealth fighters, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers, with a third under construction.
Aquilino spoke to the Associated Press aboard a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft flying near Chinese outposts in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, one of the most controversial regions in the world. During the patrol, the P-8A Poseidon plane was repeatedly warned by Chinese callers that it was illegally entering what they said was Chinese territory and ordered the plane to move away.
“China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, as well as the surrounding maritime areas. Get away immediately to avoid misjudgments,” one of the stern radio messages read in a veiled threat.
But the U.S. Navy plane rejected the many warnings and defiantly continued with its reconnaissance in brief but tense moments, as two AP journalists invited aboard witnessed. “I am a sovereign immune American naval aircraft carrying out lawful military activities outside the national airspace of any coastal state,” a U.S. pilot sent back to the Chinese.
“The exercise of these rights is guaranteed by international law, and I work with due regard for the rights and duties of all states,” he said.
Navy Commander Joel Martinez, who led the P-8A Poseidon crew, said there had been an incident in which a Chinese jet flew close to a U.S. plane in a dangerous maneuver in the disputed region. The U.S. flight crew reminded the Chinese to comply with aviation safety rules, he said.
As P-8A Poseidon flew near the Chinese-occupied reefs, some appeared to house multi-story buildings, warehouses, hangars, ports, runways and radars. Near the Fiery Cross, more than 40 vessels could apparently be seen anchored.
Aquilino said the construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military facilities at Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross appeared to be completed, but it was still unknown whether China would pursue the construction of military infrastructure in other areas.
“The function of these islands is to expand China’s offensive capabilities beyond their continental shores,” he said. “They can fly fighter jets, bombers plus all the offensive capabilities of missile systems.”
He said any military and civilian aircraft flying over the disputed waterway could easily get within reach of the Chinese islands’ missile system.
“So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so worrying about the militarization of these islands,” he said. “They threaten all nations operating in the vicinity and the entire international sea and airspace.”
China sought to strengthen its enormous territorial claims across 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 in what they call freedom missions. The United States has no requirements itself, but has deployed Navy ships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote free navigation in international waterways and airspace.
China routinely protests against any action from US military in the region. The other parties – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei – claim all or part of the sea, through which approx.
Despite China’s aggression, the protracted territorial conflicts should only be resolved peacefully, Aquilino said, citing the Philippine government’s successful move to bring its disputes with China to international arbitration in 2013 as a good template.