CHINA’S land reclamation in the South China Sea is out of step with international rules, and turning underwater land into airfields won’t expand its sovereignty, US defence secretary Ash Carter warned yesterday.
Addressing a major international security conference in Singapore which included representatives from Beijing, he stressed that the US opposes “any further militarisation” of the disputed lands.
His remarks were immediately slammed as “groundless and not constructive” by a Chinese military officer in the audience at a summit meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Carter’s comments came as it was revealed that China had already put two self-propelled guns on one of the artificial islands it is creating in the South China Sea. The discovery fuels fears that China will try to use the land reclamation projects for military purposes.
The weaponry was discovered at least several weeks ago, but has since been removed..
China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea has become an increasingly sore point in relations with the United States, even as President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping have sought to deepen cooperation in other areas, such as climate change.
Turning an underwater rock into an airfield does not bestow sovereigntyUS defence secretary Ash Carter
While Carter did not refer directly to the weapons in his speech, he told the audience that now is the time for a diplomatic solution to the territorial disputes because “we all know there is no military solution”.
“Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” he added.
China’s actions have been “reasonable and justified,” said Senior Col Zhao Xiaozhuo, deputy director of the Centre on China-America Defence Relations at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science.
He challenged Carter, asking whether America’s criticism of China and its military reconnaissance activities in the South China Sea “help to resolve the disputes” and maintain peace in the region.
Carter replied that China’s expanding land reclamation projects are unprecedented in scale. He said the US has been flying and operating ships in the region for decades and has no intention of stopping.
While Carter’s criticism was mainly aimed at China, he made it clear that other nations should also stop work on similar land reclamation projects. These include Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
While Carter added that the US “has every right to be involved and be concerned”, he did little to give Asia-Pacific nations a glimpse into what practical measures his country was taking to find a solution to the problem.
He said the US will continue to sail, fly and operate in the region, and warned that the Pentagon will be sending its “best platforms and people” to the Asia-Pacific. Those would include, he said, new high-tech submarines, surveillance aircraft, the stealth destroyer and new aircraft carrier-based, early-warning aircraft.
Senator John McCain, who was also attending the Singapore conference, said that the US needs to recognise that China will continue its activities in the South China Sea until it perceives that the costs of doing so far outweigh the benefits.
He said he agreed with Carter’s assertion that America will continue flights and operations near the building projects, but “now we want to see it translated into action”.
One senior US defence official has said the Americans are considering more military flights and patrols closer to the projects in the South China Sea, to emphasise that reclaimed lands are not China’s territorial waters.
One possibility would be for US ships to travel within 12 miles of the artificial islands, to further make the point that they are not sovereign Chinese land. McCain said it would be a critical mistake to recognise any 12-mile zone around the reclamation projects.
The US has been flying surveillance aircraft in the region, prompting China to file a formal protest.
The US has long suspected that island-building could be a prelude to navigation restrictions or the enforcement of a possible air defence identification zone over the South China Sea. China declared such a zone over disputed Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea in 2013.
China has said the islands are its territory and that the buildings and other infrastructure are for public service use and to support fishermen.