China's reclamation creates risk of clash in South China Sea: US admiral

China has raised tensions in the South China Sea with its reclamation activities, creating a risk that a small clash on the high seas could trigger a full-fledged confrontation between navies of countries involved in territorial disputes, Commander of the US Pacific Fleet said on Tuesday.

Admiral Harry Harris was speaking at a session on geopolitics at the World Economic Forum on East Asia. 

"China is responsible for the rise of tensions and complications in the South China Sea," Admiral Harris said, adding that there was stark difference between what China had committed to doing under the Declaration of Conduct with Asean and what Beijing was actually doing.

The 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea obliges parties to exercise self-restraint in activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.

"I'm concerned about that and I view that as a source of tensions in the South China Sea. And those tensions could disrupt stability and prosperity of the region," he said, adding that while the US was not a party to disputes in the region, it did have an interest in peaceful resolution of disputes. 

Admiral Harris did not elaborate but last month, he had said that China was creating a "great wall of sand" by pumping sand onto live coral reefs in the South China Sea to literally cement its claims on disputed islands.

China claims almost all of South China Sea, with its claims overlapping with several nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam.

China says its construction on South China Sea islands and reefs is meant to serve workers on the islands and host structures for civilian purposes such as search and rescue, and fishing.

The US and the Philippines, however, say the reclaimed lands are being used to build runways and other military structures that might enable China to eventually enforce a potential air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

The diplomatic fights being waged could ultimately turn into armed conflict, it is feared.

"My concern on South China Sea is not major naval force-on-force confrontation. My concern is that there are young men and women who captain small ships, coastguard ships and fishing vessels," Admiral Harris said, adding that their activities in the high seas could trigger disputes that escalate into the use of larger ships and naval forces by governments involved in these disputes.

bhagya@sph.com.sg