US admiral says China fully militarized at least three islands

US admiral says China fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea

  • China has equipped at least three man-made islands in the South China Sea with military equipment such as missile arsenals, aircraft hangars and radar systems
  • A U.S. Navy reconnaissance mission revealed the militarization of Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross in one of the world’s most disputed regions
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping previously promised not to convert the islands into military bases
  • Beijing maintains its military profile is purely defensive, despite China’s military now having the second-largest defense budget next to the U.S. 

China has fully militarized at least three of nearly a dozen manmade islands it built in the hotly contested South China Sea, despite Chinese President Xi Jinping´s previous promises not to convert the islands into military bases, a top U.S. military commander said on Sunday. 

U.S. Navy officials surveyed outposts in the South China Sea´s Spratly archipelago – one of the world’s most disputed regions – and found that the islands of Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross has been armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets.

U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John C. Aquilino shared the revelation with two Associated Press journalists who joined him on board a P-8A Poseidon plane during the reconnaissance mission, which revealed that missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military facilities had been constructed on the three artificial islands.

China has equipped at least three man-made islands in the South China Sea with military equipment such as missile arsenals, aircraft hangars and radar systems. Above is an airstrip made by China on the man-made island on Mischief Reef

A U.S. Navy reconnaissance mission revealed the militarization of Mischief Reef, Subi Reef (above) and Fiery Cross in one of the world’s most disputed regions

The islands have been armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets. Above is the man-made Fiery Cross Reef

‘I think over the past 20 years we´ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the [People’s Republic of China],’ Aquilino said.

‘They have advanced all their capabilities and that build-up of weaponization is destabilizing to the region,’ he added, noting that the move antagonizes the other nations near the South China Sea, which include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. 

Chinese officials have not yet commented, but Beijing maintains its military profile is purely defensive, arranged to protect what it says are its sovereign rights.

However, China now boasts the world´s second largest defense budget next to the U.S. after years of increased military spending 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.

During the Navy’s mission, its crew on board the P-8A Poseidon plane were repeatedly warned by Chinese callers that it illegally entered what they said was China´s territory and ordered the plane to move away.

Chinese President Xi Jinping previously promised not to convert the islands into military bases

U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John C. Aquilino (left) shared the revelation with two Associated Press journalists who joined him on board a P-8A Poseidon plane during the reconnaissance mission

U.S. officials say China’s move antagonizes the other nations near the South China Sea, which include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei

‘China has sovereignty over the Spratly islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment,’ one of the stern radio messages said in a veiled threat.

But the U.S. Navy plane dismissed the multiple warnings and pressed on defiantly with its reconnaissance in brief but tense moments witnessed by the two AP journalists invited onboard. 

‘I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,’ a U.S. pilot radioed back to the Chinese.

‘Exercising these rights is guaranteed by international law and I am operating with due regard to the rights and duties of all states,’ he said. 

In a previous incident, a Chinese jet flew close to a U.S. aircraft in a dangerous maneuver in the disputed region, said Navy commanding officer Joel Martinez, who led the P-8A Poseidon´s crew. 

The U.S. flight crew calmly reminded the Chinese to comply with aviation safety regulations, he said.

As the P-8A Poseidon flew as low as 15,000 feet near the Chinese-occupied reefs, some appeared to be like small cities on screen monitors, with multi-story buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways and white round structures Aquilino said were radars. Near Fiery Cross, more than 40 unspecified vessels could be seen apparently anchored. 

While the three islands have been fully militarized, it is unclear if China will pursue the construction of military infrastructure in other areas.  

‘The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,’ Aquilino said. ‘They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.’

Beijing maintains its military profile is purely defensive, despite China’s military now having the second-largest defense budget next to the U.S. and rapidly modernizing its force with weapons systems including the J-20 stealth fighter (above)

He added that any military and civilian plane flying over the disputed waterway could easily get within range of 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. ‘They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace.’

China sought to shore up its vast territorial claims over virtually the entire South China Sea by building island bases on coral atolls nearly a decade ago. 

The U.S. responded by sending its warships through the region in what it calls freedom of operation missions. 

The U.S. has no claims itself but has deployed Navy ships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote free navigation in international waterway and airspace.

China routinely objects to any action by the U.S. military in the region. The other countries in the area claim all or part of the sea, through which approximately $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.

The news of China’s actions in the disputed waters comes amid fears that the country may attack neighboring Taiwan. China sailed an aircraft carrier through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Friday morning, shadowed by a U.S. destroyer, just hours before the two country’s presidents were due to talk for the first time in months.

The Taiwan Strait in the South China Sea is a hotly contested stretch of water, with China claiming democratically ruled Taiwan as its own territory.

Over the past two years Beijing has stepped up its military activity near the island to assert its sovereignty claims, alarming Taipei and Washington.

An anonymous source who was not authorised to speak to the media told Reuters Shandong sailed close to the Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen, which sits directly opposite the Chinese city of Xiamen. It was shadowed by American missile destroyer the USS Ralph Johnson.

Taiwan’s air force scrambles almost daily to see off Chinese warplanes flying into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, mostly to the southwestern part of the strait.

Taiwan calls this “grey zone” warfare activity, designed to both test its responses and wear out Taiwan’s air force.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked fears that China would carry out a similar invasion on its neighbor while the world was preoccupied with Vladimir Putin’s war. Nine Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense zone the same day Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

At the same time, President Tsai Ing-wen ordered Taiwan’s military and intelligence security apparatus on to high alert, amid warnings that China could sense Western weakness after failing to prevent Russia’a attack. 

Despite China´s aggression, the long-simmering territorial conflicts should only be resolved peacefully, Aquilino said, and cited the Philippine government´s successful move to bring its disputes with China to international arbitration in 2013 as a good template.

A U.N.-backed arbitration tribunal that handled the case invalidated China´s sweeping historical claims in the South China Sea under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing dismissed the ruling as sham and continues to defy it.

Washington´s main objective in the disputed region is ‘to prevent war’ through deterrence and promote peace and stability, including by engaging American allies and partners in projects with that objective, Aquilino said.

‘Should deterrence fail, my second mission is to be prepared to fight and win,’ he added. 

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