War of words over South China Sea militarization heats up

Days after US President Barack Obama urged China to halt the militarization of newly-created islands in the South China Sea, China continues military deployments, exercises and construction in the disputed waterway.

A handout picture from the Philippines military shows construction by China in the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea

A handout picture from the Philippines military shows construction by China in the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea

During a summit meeting with Pacific Rim leaders in Manila Nov. 18, Obama called on China to halt its militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea. “We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea,” he said.

The warning was ignored in Beijing. On Nov. 24, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Li was asked if China will end island construction and stated unequivocally that it will not.

Further, Li asserted that defense facilities will continue to be built but denied the effort represented militarization. China completed land reclamation in the Spratlys, which China calls the Nansha Islands, in June, Li said, but then told reporters “some civilian facilities” are being built, including two lighthouses to assist shipping traffic.

The Chinese spokesman then made clear that militarization is also continuing. “We will also build necessary defense facilities on some islands and reefs,” Li said. “The relevant construction will be moderate, which has nothing to do with militarization, targets no countries, and [does] not obstruct various countries’ enjoyment of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea in accordance with international law.”

Three days earlier Adm. Harry Harris bluntly called China’s actions in the sea “provocative” and made clear the United States would remain a leader in resisting Chinese hegemony over the waterway that he said facilitates the annual transfer of $5.3 trillion in international trade.

“Let me be clear, we will not give China or any other nation a free pass to fray the rules-based security architecture that has benefited all of us, including China,” Harris said during a foreign policy forum in Canada.

Calling China’s maritime views on the sea “exclusionary and absolutist,” Harris said China appears to be rejecting the policies of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping who urged patience in dealing with China’s territorial disputes.

Recent actions by Beijing “appear to be walking away” from the Deng’s patient approach to using mutually beneficial solutions, Harris said.

China, Harris said, is shifting from patient state into “a nation in a hurry” through the massive island building spree that began last year in disputed waters of the South China Sea. The activities significantly heightened tensions in the region, he said.

The Chinese have started “building runways and support facilities to support possible militarization of an area vital to the global economy,” the four-star admiral said.

Chinese military units are now warning ships and planes legally operating in the sea that they are not permitted to enter China’s claimed security zone, a zone Harris said “does not exist.”

Harris also said Chinese military leaders have issued veiled threats against other claimants to the sea. He also praised the international tribunal that supported Philippines’ claims to the Spratlys and said China’s reaction is being closely watched.

The four-star admiral made clear the United States would not be coerced or intimidated by China and will continued to fly, sail and operate in the sea. “The South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” he stated, promising further warship transits like last month’s passage of the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen.

Pentagon officials said privately that the next US Navy transit likely would take place by two warships near Mischief Reef in the Spratlys some time before the end of the year. That island is one of three locations where China is building an airstrip that US defense officials say likely will be used for military operations that could control access to the region.

“These [freedom of navigation] operations serve to protect the rights, and freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law, including China,” Harris said.

Harris said a war with China is not inevitable but warned of the growing danger of a conflict. “Access to shared thoroughfares is at risk due to increasing competition and unfortunately the provocative actions by nations like China,” he said.

Meanwhile, China has been busy bolstering its defenses in the region and signaling that it will take steps to challenge US forces in the region.

In response to Harris, People’s Liberation Army Navy Capt. Zhang Junshe told state-run Global Times that another warship passage by the United States would be a “serious provocation” of Chinese sovereignty and security.

“Chinese armed forces would undoubtedly respond by dispatching matching forces” to the disputed islands, Zhang said, adding that the US warship passages “violates international law.”

A further indication of Chinese militarization was the announcement Nov. 24 that the PLA commissioned its largest supply ship that will be home ported at Sansha City, an island outpost set up in 2012 that is the hub for Chinese maritime claims. The ship can support helicopters and can move heavy equipment. It is the first time a large supply ship has been deployed to the sea.

Earlier in the month, Chinese naval forces conducted war games in the sea that simulated long-distance assaults and landing operations.

Other war games included live fire drills by surface ships simulating attacks on submarines in the sea.

The heated rhetoric from both China and the United States is a sign that tensions remain high, and that the risk of a military miscalculation leading to a shoot out or other military action is increasing.

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz

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