A leading U.S. military commander has said that China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea, equipping them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems and fighter jets, while threatening all nations in the area.
Admiral John C. Aquilino, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander, said China’s actions contrasted with President Xi Jinping’s past assurances that Beijing would not transform the artificial islands into military bases, adding that China was again flexing its military muscle.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Aquilino said, “I think over the past 20 years we have witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC.”
Chinese officials have not been available for comment, though Beijing maintains that its military profile is purely defensive. However, after years of increased military spending, China now has the world’s second-largest defense budget, after the U.S., and is rapidly modernizing its force with weapons systems.
Aquilino was interviewed the AP onboard a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago. During the patrol, the P-8A Poseidon plane was repeatedly warned by Chinese callers that it illegally entered what they claimed was China’s territory and ordered the plane to leave.
“China has sovereignty over the Spratly islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment,” one of the radio messages stated.
But the U.S. Navy plane dismissed the warnings and pressed on defiantly with its reconnaissance, with a U.S. pilot responding, “I am a sovereign immune U.S. naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state.”
Aquilino said the construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military facilities on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross have been completed, but it is uncertain whether 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. They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems,” he said.
During her daily briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about reports of China militarizing islands. She referred the questions to the Defense Department, but explained, “Obviously, any escalatory actions in the South China Sea would be of concern to us.”
China routinely objects to any U.S. military action in the region, while other parties, most notably the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, claim all or part of the South China Sea, through which approximately $5 trillion in goods are shipped annually.
A UN-backed arbitration tribunal that heard the case invalidated China’s claims to the South China Sea, but Beijing has dismissed the ruling and continues to defy it.