US seeks China guarantee: Don’t militarize South China Sea
WASHINGTON/BEIJING—The Pentagon on Tuesday called on China to reaffirm it has no plans to deploy military aircraft in the Spratly Islands after Beijing used a military plane to evacuate sick workers from a new airstrip on an island it has created in the disputed South China Sea.
China’s defense ministry earlier dismissed US queries as to why China had used a military aircraft rather than a civilian one in Sunday’s evacuation from Kagitingan Reef (international name: Fiery Cross Reef).
US state department spokesperson John Kirby told a regular news briefing it was “difficult to understand” why China would have had to use a military aircraft for the evacuation.
He also said it was “a problem” that the workers had apparently been working on “infrastructure improvements of a military nature.”
A Pentagon spokesperson, Cmdr. Gary Ross, called on China to clarify its intentions.
“We urge China to reaffirm that it has no plans to deploy or rotate military aircraft at its outposts in the Spratlys, in keeping with China’s prior assurances,” he said.
Ross also called on all rivals in the South China Sea to clarify their claims in accordance with international law and “to avoid unilateral actions that change the status quo.”
China’s defense ministry said Beijing had indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and the United States had no right to comment on Chinese building works and defensive facilities there.
It said it was Chinese military tradition to “wholeheartedly serve the people” and help those in need.
“In sharp contrast, the US side is expressing doubts about whether it’s a military or civilian aircraft at a time when somebody’s life is in danger,” it said.
“We cannot but ask: If a US citizen suddenly took ill on US soil, would the US military look on with folded arms?”
Chinese activity in disputed waters of the South China Sea, including the construction of islands by dredging sand onto reefs and shoals in the Spratly archipelago, has alarmed rival claimants, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
The United States has repeatedly criticized the construction of the islands and worries that China plans to use them for military purposes.
It worries that trade in what is one of the world’s busiest waterways could be threatened, but China says it has no hostile intent.
The runway on Kagitingan Reef is 3,000 meters long and is one of three China has been building in the archipelago.
Civilian flights began test runs there in January but Sunday’s landing was the first China has publicly reported by a military plane on Kagitingan Reef.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including waters close to the shores of the other claimants—the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The Philippines, without military power to defend its claim, has taken its dispute with China to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague for resolution.
China has ignored the process and said it would not recognize any ruling by the tribunal.
The court, however, has proceeded to hear the case and is due to hand down a ruling in the coming weeks.
The United States does not take sides in the territorial disputes, but China’s island-building to bolster its claims in the South China Sea has become a major source of friction between them.
Invoking the freedom of navigation and overflight, the United States has challenged China’s sweeping claims by sending warships, surveillance places and bombers near the artificial islands Beijing has built in the Spratly archipelago.
New security deal
It has also entered into a new security deal with the Philippines under which it can rotate troops and station weapons and equipment in five Philippine military bases, including on Palawan Island, the Philippine landmass closest to the hotly disputed Spratlys.
Last week, Pentagon chief Ashton Carter, visiting the Philippines to observe annual war games between US and Philippine soldiers, announced that the United States and the Philippines had begun joint patrols in the South China Sea.
Carter also announced the imminent arrival of fresh troops for increased rotation and the introduction of secure-network communication for surveillance in Philippine waters in the South China Sea.
The stepped-up military cooperation between the United States and the Philippines angered China, which said it would “resolutely defend” its interests and accused the longstanding allies of “militarizing” the South China Sea and harboring a “Cold War mentality.”
US President Barack Obama has argued for the strategic importance to the United States of the South China Sea, where $5 trillion in annual global trade passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.
On Tuesday, his South China Sea police came under attack from a fellow Democrat, but in an unusual twist it was a Republican adversary who leapt to the administration’s defense.
State department officials were testifying before a House foreign affairs subcommittee, requesting an increase in their budget for East Asia and the Pacific, which Obama has made a strategic priority even as he has been sidetracked by turmoil in the Mideast.
Rep. Brad Sherman of California, the panel’s top-ranking Democrat, accused the administration of exaggerating the importance of uninhabited islands in the region’s contested seas.
He contended that the Pentagon was also playing up the threat posed by China.
“While we all agree that the region is important, I think we are going down the wrong path because we are being war hawks about some islets that remain uninhabited to this day. That’s how useless they are,” Sherman said.
Daniel Russel, top US diplomat for East Asia, responded that the United States was standing up for international norms and had a “vital” economic and security interests there.
“It’s not about the rocks, it’s about the rules. We profit when we live in a rules-based world,” Russel said.
Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, Republican chair of the panel, agreed. He said if the islands had no value, “then why is China building runways on them?”
“It’s causing our allies in the region great, great, great concern,” he said.
Although Salmon is a staunch critic of higher spending on most US government programs, he was supportive of the administration’s budget request for $1.5 billion for US foreign operations and assistance for East Asia, for the fiscal year starting in October—an 11 percent increase over fiscal 2015.
“What you all do is keep us out of war. For less than 1 percent of the total budget, the job that you do is incredibly worth it,” Salmon said, referring to the proportion of the federal budget spent on global foreign operations. Reports from the wires
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