A top US military commander said on Sunday that China has fully militarized at least three of the islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-air missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby.
According to US Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John C. Aquilino, the unfriendly measures were in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s previous pledges that Beijing would not turn the artificial islands in disputed waters into military bases. According to him, the actions were part of China’s military flexing.
“I believe the PRC has seen the largest military expansion since World War II,” Aquilino said in an interview with The Associated Press, using the initials of China’s formal name. “They have upgraded all of their capabilities, and the region is becoming increasingly destabilised as a result of this weaponization.”
Chinese officials did not respond immediately. Beijing claims that its military posture is solely defensive, designed to safeguard its sovereignty rights. However, after years of increased military spending, China now has the world’s second-largest defence budget, after the United States, and is rapidly modernising its force with weapons systems such as the J-20 stealth fighter, hypersonic missiles, and two aircraft carriers, with a third in the works.
Onboard a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft flying near Chinese-held outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago, one of the world’s most hotly contested locations, Aquilino spoke with the Associated Press. During the operation, Chinese callers repeatedly informed the P-8A Poseidon plane that it had breached what they claimed was Chinese territory and requested the pilot to leave.
“The Spratly Islands, as well as the adjacent oceanic areas, are under Chinese authority. Stay away right now to prevent making a mistake,” one of the severe radio messages warned, implying a threat.
In brief but stressful moments witnessed by two AP journalists permitted onboard, the US Navy jet ignored several warnings and continued defiantly with its reconnaissance. A US pilot radioed back to the Chinese, “I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft performing authorised military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state.”
A Chinese fighter flew near to a US aircraft in a perilous manoeuvre in the disputed region, according to Navy commanding officer Joel Martinez, who led the crew of the P-8A Poseidon. According to him, the US aircraft crew politely advised the Chinese to follow aviation safety laws.
On-screen monitors, several of the Chinese-occupied reefs appeared to be small cities, with multi-story buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways, and white spherical objects Aquilino said were radars, while the P-8A Poseidon flew as low as 15,000 feet (4,500 metres) near them. More least 40 unidentified vessels were spotted anchored near Fiery Cross.
The building of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems, and other military facilities on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross appeared to be done, according to Aquilino, but it is unclear whether China will continue to build military infrastructure in other places.
“The purpose of those islands is to extend the PRC’s aggressive potential beyond its continental frontiers,” he explained. “They can fly aircraft, bombers, and missile systems with all those offensive capabilities.”
He claimed that any military or a civilian plane travelling over the disputed waterway would be within easy range of the Chinese missile system.
“That is the threat that exists, and that is why the militarization of these islands is so alarming,” he said. “They pose a threat to all nations operating in the area, as well as all international sea and airspace.”
China built island outposts on coral atolls about a decade ago to bolster its massive territorial claims over virtually the entire South China Sea. The United States retaliated by deploying warships through the region on so-called “freedom of operation” missions. Although the US does not have any claims, it has deployed Navy ships and aircraft to police and promote free navigation in international waterways and airspace for decades.
China usually opposes any military intervention by the United States in the region. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, among others, claim all or part of the sea, through which $5 trillion in commodities are moved annually.
Despite China’s aggression, Aquilino believes that long-standing territorial disputes should only be settled amicably, citing the Philippine government’s successful move to bring its disputes with China to international arbitration in 2013 as a good example.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an UN-backed arbitration tribunal dismissed China’s broad historical claims in the South China Sea. Beijing has denounced the verdict as a sham and has defied it.
According to Aquilino, Washington’s principal goal in the disputed zone is to “avoid conflict” through deterrence and promote peace and stability, which includes involving American allies and partners in programmes that achieve that goal.
“Should deterrence fail, my second objective is to be ready to fight and win,” said Aquilino, who oversees the largest US combatant command, which has 380,000 military and civilian people spread across 36 countries and territories.