China has fully militarized at least three of the many islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and warplanes. hunt in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby, a top US military commander said Sunday.
US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John C Aquilino said the hostile actions stood in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s past assurances that Beijing would not turn man-made islands in the disputed waters into military bases. . The efforts were part of flexing China‘s military strength, he said.
“Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the biggest military build-up since World War II by the PRC,” Aquilino told The Associated Press in an interview, using the initials of China’s official name. “They have developed all their capabilities and this accumulation of weapons is destabilizing the region.”
There was no immediate comment from Chinese officials. Beijing maintains that its military profile is purely defensive, arranged to protect what it says are its sovereign rights. But after years of increased military spending, China now has the world’s second largest defense budget after the United States and 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 Associated Press aboard a US Navy reconnaissance plane that flew near Chinese outposts in the Spratly Archipelago in the South China Sea, one of the most disputed in the world. During the patrol, the P-8A Poseidon aircraft was repeatedly warned by Chinese callers that it had 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. Walk 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 continued its reconnaissance in brief but tense moments witnessed by two AP journalists invited on board. “I am a sovereign, immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” an American pilot radioed the Chinese.
“The exercise of these rights is guaranteed by international law and I act with respect for the rights and duties of all States,” he said.
Navy Commander Joel Martinez, who led the crew of the P-8A Poseidon, said there was an incident in which a Chinese plane flew close to an American plane during a dangerous maneuver in the disputed region. The American flight crew reminded the Chinese to comply with aviation safety rules, he said.
As the P-8A Poseidon flew near Chinese-occupied reefs, some appeared to house multi-storey buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways and radar. Near Fiery Cross over 40 ships could be seen apparently anchored.
Aquilino said the construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military installations on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross appeared to have been completed, but it remained to be seen whether China would continue. construction of military infrastructure in other areas.
“The function of these islands is to extend the PRC’s offensive capability beyond their mainland coasts,” he said. “They can fly fighters, bombers, and 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’s there, that’s why it’s such a concern for the militarization of these islands,” he said. “They threaten all nations operating nearby and all international sea and air space.”
China sought to cement its vast territorial claims over nearly all of the South China Sea by building island bases on coral atolls nearly a decade ago. The United States responded by sending its warships to the region on what it calls freedom of operation missions. The United States has no claims itself, but has deployed naval ships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote free navigation in international waterways and airspace.
China regularly opposes any US military action in the region. The other parties – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei – lay claim to all or part of the sea, through which around $5 billion worth of goods are shipped each year.
Despite China’s aggression, long-simmering territorial disputes should only be resolved peacefully, Aquilino said, and cited the Philippine government’s successful decision to submit its disputes with China to international arbitration in 2013 as a good model.