China gearing up for East Asia dominance: US Pacific commander

A satellite image shows construction of possible radar tower facilities in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea by China.
A satellite image shows construction of possible radar tower facilities in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea by China. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - China is "changing the operational landscape" in the South China Sea by deploying missiles and radar as part of an effort to militarily dominate East Asia, a senior US military official said.

China is "clearly militarising the South China (Sea)," said Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, adding: "You'd have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise."

Admiral Harris said he believed China's deployment of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea's Paracel chain, new radars on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys and its building of airstrips were "actions that are changing in my opinion the operational landscape in the South China Sea."

Soon after he spoke, US government sources confirmed that China recently deployed fighter jets to Woody Island. It was not the first time Beijing sent jets there but it raised new questions about its intentions.

US Navy Captain Darryn James, spokesman for US Pacific Command, said China's repeated deployment of advanced fighter aircraft to Woody Island continued a disturbing trend. "These destabilising actions are inconsistent with the commitment by China and all claimants to exercise restraint from actions that could escalate disputes," he said.

"That's why we've called for all claimants to stop land reclamation, stop construction and stop militarisation in the South China Sea."

But US and Chinese foreign ministers signaled that despite disagreements over the South China Sea, they were near agreement on a UN resolution against North Korea for its recent nuclear and missile tests and stressed their cooperation on economic and other issues.

'HEGEMONY IN EAST ASIA'

Speaking before the meeting in Washington between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State John Kerry, Admiral Harris said China was escalating the situation in the South China Sea with new deployments.

Asked about its aims, he said:"I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia."

Responding to another question, he said Chinese DF-21 and DF-26 anti-ship missiles could pose a threat to US aircraft carriers, but added the vessels were resilient and that the United States had "the capability to do what has to be done if it comes to that."

He also said he supported regular US air and naval patrols to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which more than US$5 trillion (S$7 million) in global trade passes every year.

At a news conference with Mr Kerry, Mr Wang said there had been no problems with freedom of navigation and China and countries of the Association of South-east Asian Nations - several of which have competing claims with China - "have the capability to maintain stability in the South China Sea."

He said militarisation was not the responsibility of one party alone and added in apparent reference to US patrols: "We don't hope to see any more close-up military reconnaissance, or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea."

'ESCALATORY CYCLE'

Mr Kerry said steps by China, Vietnam and others had created an "escalatory cycle." "What we are trying to do it break that cycle," he said. "Regrettably there are missiles and fighter aircraft and guns and other things that have been placed into the South China Sea and this is of great concern to everyone who transits and relies on the South China Sea for peaceful trade," he added.

A US think-tank reported on Monday that China may be installing a high-frequency radar system on the Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands that could significantly boost its ability to control the strategic sea.

Last Thursday, the United States accused China of raising tensions by its apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island. China has also built military-length airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea.

China's Foreign Ministry said ahead of Mr Wang's visit that Beijing's military deployments in the South China Sea were no different from US deployments on Hawaii.

China's Ministry of Defence said on its microblog on Tuesday that China had established "necessary defensive facilities" that were "legal and appropriate."