As global attention is focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a top United States military official is raising the alarm over China’s aggressive military build-up in the disputed South China Sea.
On Sunday, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John C. Aquilino said that the Chinese government has armed at least three of several artificial islands it has built in the region with fighter jets and high-tech jamming devices, as well as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems.
“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.” According to Aquilino, the militarization of the islands in the highly contested waters contradicts previous assertions by Chinese President Xi Jinping that they will not be turned into military bases. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have all made claims to various parts of the region. China started building island bases on coral atolls covering expanded areas in the South China Sea about a decade ago. The U.S., which has no claims in the region, has been sending its warships to patrol the waters in what it has dubbed freedom of operation missions.
On March 20, Aquilino and his crew patrolled the Chinese-occupied outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago via the U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft P-8A Poseidon.
Despite warnings from Chinese callers, the plane was able to fly as low as 15,000 feet near the artificial islands. The team found that military facilities were present on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross.
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“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,” he said. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”
Beijing has said that it is only maintaining a defensive stance in the region to protect areas it claims are its own.
Earlier this month, diplomatic sources from the Philippines revealed that China has been ignoring protests of the Philippine government against constant intrusions, including the reported recent entries of Chinese vessels within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) stated that a Chinese Navy ship lingered from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 in the Sulu Sea, an area within the Philippine archipelago’s undisputed territory under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite demands from a Philippine vessel that they leave, the Chinese vessel proceeded, reaching the waters of Palawan’s Cuyo Group of Islands and Apo Island in Mindoro.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ma. Theresa P. Lazaro issued a demand for Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to follow international law and stop Beijing’s vessels from entering Philippine waters uninvited.
The Philippine agency maintained that the Chinese ship’s entry into the local waters “did not constitute innocent passage and violated Philippine sovereignty.”
While the Chinese ships involved in such intrusions were often identified as fishing vessels, they reportedly did not conduct actual fishing activities. Last year, the Philippines also protested the accumulation of over 200 such vessels in the Philippine EEZ. Concerns about China’s aggressive military actions towards its neighbors have escalated since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Beijing’s deployment of warplanes on Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone has stoked fears that the Russian ally could make a similar attempt at a military takeover.
Weeks ago, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called upon citizens to unite and ordered all government units to “strengthen the prevention of cognitive warfare” against “foreign forces intending to manipulate the situation in Ukraine and affect the morale of Taiwanese society.”