The United States has spotted a pair of mobile artillery vehicles on an artificial island that China is building in the South China Sea, a resource-rich stretch of ocean crossed by vital shipping lanes, American officials said.
China’s construction program on previously uninhabited atolls and reefs in the Spratly Islands has already raised alarm and drawn protests from other countries in the region, whose claims to parts of the South China Sea overlap with China’s. The United States has also become increasingly vocal about its objections in recent days.
Defence Secretary Ashton B. Carter called this week for China to halt the construction, saying that international law did not recognise Chinese claims of sovereignty over the new territories and that American warships and military aircraft would continue to operate in the area. He reiterated those assertions in a speech Saturday morning in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference that brings together most Asian countries and many other powers outside the region.
“We all know that turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty,” Mr. Carter said.
The United States, he added, is “deeply concerned about the pace and scope” of China’s island building and the possibility of increased militarisation, which risks the kind of miscalculations that could lead to conflict.
Mr. Carter announced a new $425 million maritime security initiative to help countries in Southeast Asia improve their naval and coast guard capabilities.
China is not the only country to develop outposts in the South China Sea over the years, Mr. Carter noted. Vietnam, for instance, has 48, and the Philippines, a close American ally, has eight.
“Yet, one country has gone much farther and much faster than any other,” he said. “And that’s China.”
China has constructed over 2,000 acres of new territory in the Spratly Islands in the past 18 months, which is “more than all other claimants combined,” Mr. Carter continued. “It is unclear how much farther China will go.” The artillery was spotted by satellites and surveillance aircraft about a month ago on one of the new islands China has built, and the two vehicles have since either been hidden or removed, according to another American official who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity. The official added that even if the weapons remained on the island, they posed no threat to American naval forces or aircraft in the region, though the guns could reach some nearby islands claimed by other countries.
With Mr. Carter in Singapore for the security conference, which Chinese officials are also attending, American officials were reluctant to publicly discuss the intelligence they had collected about the artillery.
Brent Colburn, a spokesman travelling with Mr. Carter, would say only that the United States was aware of the weapons, whose detection was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, criticized China’s deployment of artillery on the island as “a disturbing development and escalatory development.”
“Their actions are in violation of international law, and their actions are going to be condemned by everyone in the world,” Mr. McCain was quoted by Reuters as saying in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he stopped on Friday on his way to Singapore for the conference.
“We are not going to have a conflict with China,” he said, “but we can take certain measures which will be a disincentive to China to continue these kinds of activities.”
There was no immediate comment from Chinese officials about the weapons. But China has sent its most high-powered delegation yet to the annual meeting in Singapore; a top military official, Adm. Sun Jianguo, is scheduled to speak at the conference.
China released a military strategy document this week that, for the first time, called for its navy to project force beyond its coastal waters into the open oceans. Western officials said that because of its timing, the document seemed intended as a challenge to other participants in the conference.
And days before the document was released, China demanded that an American military surveillance plane leave the skies above Fiery Cross Reef, which China has built into an island with a runway that its military can use. The American aircraft did not alter its course, American officials have said.
China has said that it was building the artificial islands largely for civilian purposes, but it has not denied that it also envisions a military role for them. “Such constructions are within China’s sovereignty and are fair, reasonable, lawful and do not affect nor target any country, and are beyond reproach,” Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters in April.
The United States disagrees, and American officials have stressed in recent days that the American-dominated security order in the region should be respected because it has brought calm and prosperity, a theme Mr. Carter will develop in his remarks on Saturday in Singapore.
“It’s important for the region to understand that America is going to remain engaged,” he said, and it will “continue to stand up for international law and universal principles and help provide security and stability in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”
The implication is that China is threatening to upend that system, though Mr. Carter and other American officials have hesitated to say so directly, preferring to talk in generalities about the need for diplomatic solutions and inclusive security arrangements.
But the island-building has been a major concern of the United States and Southeast Asian nations for more than a year, and Mr. Carter is not the first head of the Pentagon to say so at a regional security forum.
At last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Chuck Hagel, Mr. Carter’s predecessor, said that China was engaged in “destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.” The Philippines has also spoken out against Chinese island building.
China has countered by pointing to the outposts built by the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea. But analysts say that the two nations did not build islands, and in any case their structures were generally built before 2002, when China and nine Southeast Asian nations signed a nonbinding agreement to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities” and to refrain from trying to inhabit any land features that were uninhabited at that time.
American and Southeast Asian officials are concerned that China may try to claim an exclusive economic zone in waters within 200 nautical miles of the new land formations, which they argue are ineligible for determining such zones.
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- China is claiming air space over disputed areas of the South China Sea (chinadailymail.com)
- US, Australia and Philippines start war games in South China Sea amid China tensions (chinadailymail.com)
- Ma proposes S. China Sea peace plan (chinapost.com.tw)
- U.S.-China War “Inevitable” If U.S. Continues Flights Over Claimed Islands (thenewamerican.com)
- UPDATE1: U.S. defense chief blasts China’s land reclamation in South China Sea (english.kyodonews.jp)
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