China's actions in South China Sea far bigger than other claimants, says US official

A US Navy crewman viewing a screen purportedly showing Chinese construction on a reef in the South China Sea in an image released last May.
A US Navy crewman viewing a screen purportedly showing Chinese construction on a reef in the South China Sea in an image released last May.PHOTO: REUTERS

China's campaign of land reclamation and military construction on features in disputed waters of the South China Sea "vastly outstrips what all other claimants have done over the past several decades", a senior US official has said.

As for recent friction with Indonesia over Chinese fishermen, it was "particularly disturbing" to see fishing issues come to the fore, and the scale of Chinese fishing "raises questions about what the intent is over the long term'', Ms Colin Willett, US Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told South-east Asian journalists yesterday in a teleconference call from Washington.

"In the case of Indonesia, we're not even talking about the South China Sea. We're well into Indonesia's exclusive economic zone," said Ms Willett. "I think this is all a piece of a broader pattern of behaviour where the scope and scale of Chinese activities actually outpace what we see in the rest of the region."

China claims almost the entire South China Sea but several Asean countries, in particular Vietnam and the Philippines, also claim parts of it. In recent years, Beijing has stepped up land reclamation and expanded islands in the waters.

Last month, it was reported that China had deployed surface-to-air missiles and, days later, fighter jets on Woody Island in the Paracels, also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

NOT FOR CIVILIAN USE

We simply don't need these types of facilities to protect civilians or assist distressed fishermen or monitor the weather. The runways they have built are designed to accommodate strategic bombers. We see radio operators... challenging foreign ships.

MS COLIN WILLETT, US Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

The Chinese have controlled Woody Island since 1956, and had placed fighter jets there before.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the reports an attempt by Western media to "create news stories".  

Still, China's latest deployments, together with its reclamation and enhanced facilities in the Spratlys, another island chain, have raised eyebrows.

The Chinese claim that reclamation and construction in the South China Sea are for civilian purposes does not pass muster, Ms Willett said. "We simply don't need these types of facilities to protect civilians or assist distressed fishermen or monitor the weather."

She added: "The runways they have built are designed to accommodate strategic bombers. We still see radio operators... challenging foreign ships and planes that are operating according to international law, and warning them to stay away."

All eyes will be on China as an international arbitration tribunal at The Hague hands down its ruling in the coming months on a petition filed by the Philippines, said Ms Willett."If China ignores the ruling, it disregards its obligation under the Law of the Sea."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'China's actions in S. China Sea 'far bigger' than all other claimants'. Print Edition | Subscribe