Admiral John C. Aquilino, left, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, looks at videos of Chinese structures on board a US P-8A Poseidon plane flying at the Spratly in the South China Sea on March 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
A top United States military commander told the Associated Press that China has fully militarized at least three islands in the disputed South China Sea.
The islands are among several man-made islands in waters claimed by several countries in East Asia. The U.S. does have any claim in the disputed area. But it said China has deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets there.
Admiral John Aquilino is the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. He said the actions are against past Chinese promises not to turn the man-made islands into military bases.
“I think over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC,” Aquilino told The Associated Press. “They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.”
PRC is a shortened form for the People’s Republic of China, the country’s official name.
There were no immediate comments from Chinese officials.
China has said its military is for defensive purposes. But the country now has the world’s second-largest military budget after the U.S. China has modernized its forces with offensive weapons like stealth fighters, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers. A third aircraft carrier is being built.
Aquilino spoke with the AP on a U.S. Navy aircraft on Sunday. The plane was on an observation trip near the Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago.
During the mission, the U.S. plane was repeatedly warned by Chinese officials that it illegally entered what they said was China’s territory and ordered the plane to move away. One of the callers said, “China has sovereignty over the Spratly islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment.”
A U.S. Navy pilot radioed back that the plane was carrying out “lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state.” He added: “Exercising these rights is guaranteed by international law...”
The U.S. airplane flew near the Chinese-occupied islands. Observers could see what appeared to be small cities on the islands with tall and large buildings. There were structures for storage, runways for airplanes, and white round structures that Aquilino said were radars. More than 40 ships could be seen near an island called Fiery Cross. Aquilino said the building of missile stations, aircraft buildings, radar systems and other military structures on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross appeared to have been completed.
Aquilino said, “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”
He said any military or civilian plane flying over the disputed waterway could easily be targeted by the Chinese islands’ missile system.
“So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so concerning for the militarization of these islands,” he said. And he added, “They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace.”
China has claimed almost all of the South China Sea by building islands and setting up military bases. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia also have territorial claims in parts of the sea. It is estimated that $5 trillion in goods are shipped through the waterway every year.
The U.S. claims no part of the South China Sea. However, it sends planes and warships through the area to protect what it calls “freedom of navigation” in international waters and airspace.
Aquilino said the territorial conflicts should only be settled peacefully. He noted that the Philippine government successfully brought its dispute with China to international arbitration in 2013. A U.N.-supported court denied China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. China dismissed the ruling.
Aquilino said the U.S. aims “to prevent war” through deterrence and promote peace and stability. He added, “should deterrence fail, my second mission is to be prepared to fight and win.” Aquilino leads the largest U.S. command with 380,000 military and civilian personnel covering 36 nations and territories.
Words in This Story
jamming –n. the act of making (a radio signal or broadcast) impossible to understand by sending out signals or messages that weaken or block it
capability –n. the ability to do something; the means to carry something out
destabilize –v. to cause (something, such as a government) to be unable to continue existing or working in the usual or desired way; to make (something) unstable
archipelago –n. a group of islands
mission –n. a specific military or naval task
maritime –adj. related to the sea
vicinity –n. the area around or near a particular place
navigation –n. the act of moving in a boat or ship over an area of water
arbitration –n. a process of settling an argument or disagreement in which the people or groups on both sides present their opinions and ideas to a third person or group
deterrence –n. (politics) the policy of developing a lot of military power so that other countries will not attack your country