SOUTH CHINESE (AP) – China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea and armed them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets in one increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby, a top U.S. military commander said Sunday.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander-in-Chief John C. Aquilino said the hostilities were in sharp contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s previous 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.
“I think 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 with 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 several years increased military spendingChina 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 AP 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 has been an incident when a Chinese jet flew close to a U.S. plane in a dangerous maneuver in the disputed region. The U.S. flight crew calmly reminded the Chinese to comply with aviation safety rules, he said.
As the P-8A Poseidon flew as low as 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) near the Chinese-occupied reefs, some appeared to be like small towns on screen monitors with multi-storey buildings, warehouses, hangars, ports, runways and white rounds. structures Aquilino said were radars. Near the Fiery Cross, more than 40 unspecified 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 is still unknown whether China will 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 by the US military in the region. The other parties – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei – claim all or part of the ocean, through which approximately $ 5 trillion in goods are shipped each year.
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.
A UN-backed arbitration tribunal, which heard the case, invalidated China’s extensive historical claims in the South China Sea under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing dismissed the ruling as false and continues to defy it.
Washington’s main goal in the disputed region is “to prevent war” through deterrence and promoting peace and stability, including by engaging U.S. allies and partners in projects with that goal, Aquilino said.
“Should deterrence fail, my second mission is to be ready to fight and win,” said Aquilino, who heads the largest U.S. combatant command with 380,000 military and civilian personnel covering 36 nations and territories.
Associated Press writer David Rising in Bangkok contributed to this report.