U.S. Admiral: 'We are witnessing China's biggest power build-up since World War II'
U.S. Admiral John C. Aquilino claims China has fully militarized three islands in South China sea. According to the naval commander, Beijing is showing its military muscles by deploying fighter jets, anti-ship systems and other military installations on the islands.
China has fully militarized at least three of the several islands it has built in the South China Sea, armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets. The move by Beijing was described by a senior US military leader as “an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all countries in the vicinity.”
The US commander in the Indo-Pacific, Admiral John Aquilino, said the hostile action was in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping's past assurances that Beijing would not turn artificial islands in contested waters into military bases. The effort, he said, was part of China's display of its military muscle.
“Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed China's largest military build-up since World War II, – Aquilino said in an interview with The Associated Press, using the initials of China's official name. – They have advanced all their capabilities, and this build-up of weapons is destabilizing the region.
There were no immediate comments from Chinese officials. Beijing claims its military preparations are purely defensive in nature and designed to protect what it calls its sovereign rights. But after years of increased military spending, China now boasts the world's second-largest defense budget behind the US and is rapidly upgrading its forces with weapons systems including the J-20 stealth fighter, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers, with a third aircraft carrier in Under construction.
Aquilino spoke to The Associated Press aboard a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, one of the world's most contested regions. While on patrol, the P-8A Poseidon was repeatedly warned by the Chinese that it had illegally entered what they said was Chinese territory, and the aircraft was ordered to leave.
“China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands as well as the adjacent maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid trouble, – said in one of the harsh radio messages with a veiled threat.
However, the US Navy aircraft ignored numerous warnings and defiantly continued its reconnaissance in brief but tense moments witnessed by two AP journalists invited on board. “I am a United States naval aircraft with sovereign immunity that conducts legitimate military activities outside the national airspace of any coastal state,” – an American pilot radioed to the Chinese.
“The exercise of these rights is guaranteed by international law, and I act with due regard for the rights and obligations of all states,” – said the pilot.
Naval Commander Joel Martinez, who led the crew of the P-8A Poseidon, said the incident occurred when a Chinese aircraft flew close to a US aircraft, making a dangerous maneuver in a disputed area. According to him, the American flight crew reminded the Chinese of observing the rules of aviation security.
When the P-8A Poseidon flew near the reefs occupied by the Chinese, some of them showed high-rise buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways and radars.
Aquilino said the construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military installations on Mischief, Subi Reef and Fire Cross reefs appears to have been completed, but it remains to be seen if China will continue to build military infrastructure in other areas.
“The function of these islands – to expand the offensive capabilities of the PRC beyond its continental coasts, – he said. – They can fly fighters, bombers, and all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.
The American admiral said that any military or civilian aircraft flying over the disputed waterway could easily fall into the range of the missile system of the Chinese islands.
“So that's the threat that exists, that's why the militarization of these islands is so worrying , – he said. – They threaten all countries that operate nearby, as well as all international sea and airspace.
China has sought to bolster its vast territorial claims across virtually the entire South China Sea by building island bases on coral atolls nearly a decade ago. The US responded by sending its warships through the region in what it called “freedom of action missions.” The United States does not claim the region itself, The Guardian writes, but has used Navy ships and aircraft for decades to patrol and ensure free navigation in international waterways and airspace.
China usually objects to any action by the US military in the region. Other parties – Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei – claim all or part of the waters through which about $5 trillion worth of goods are transported annually.
Admiral Aquilino said that despite China's actions, protracted territorial conflicts should only be resolved peacefully, and as a good example referred to the Philippine government's successful move to submit its disputes with China to international arbitration in 2013.