China developing, arming manmade isles—US report
WASHINGTON—China has reclaimed more than 1,295 hectares of land in the southeastern South China Sea. But the country’s focus has shifted to developing and arming those manmade islands to give it greater control over the maritime region without having to resort to armed conflict, according to a new Pentagon report.
In its most detailed assessment to date of China’s island-building program, the Department of Defense said three of the land features on the Spratly islands now had nearly 10,000-foot runways and large ports in various stages of construction.
And China has excavated deep channels, created and dredged harbors, and constructed communications, logistics and intelligence-gathering facilities.
The report argued that the accelerated building effort did not give China any new territorial rights. But it said that the airfields, ship facilities, and surveillance and weapons equipment would allow China to significantly enhance its long-term presence in the South China Sea.
“This would improve China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to it, and reduce the time required to deploy them,” the report released on Friday said.
Chinese officials have defended the land reclamation by saying they are Beijing’s territory, adding that the buildings and infrastructure were for public service use and to support fishermen. It accused the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries of carrying out their own building work on other islands.
“China is using coercive tactics short of armed conflict, such as the use of law enforcement vessels to enforce maritime claims, to advance their interests in ways that calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict,” the report said.
The 1,295 ha only represents China’s reclamation in the Spratlys and does not include its building in the Paracels, further northwest, including the contested Woody Island, in its estimates. China has deployed antiaircraft missiles to Woody Island, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Pentagon declined to release details on the amount of increased reclamation in the Paracels or to provide a more concrete estimate of the increase in building in the Spratly islands, to some of which the Philippines has claims.
The report also noted that China had continued to assert sovereignty over the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan.
Vietnam, China and Taiwan all claim the Paracels, and the three along with the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim all or parts of the Spratlys. The United States said it takes no sides in the territorial disputes, but supports freedom of passage through the region, which is one of the world’s busiest and richest sea lanes.
China’s island building, the report concluded, is designed to walk right up to—but not cross—“the threshold of provoking the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Asia Pacific region into open conflict.”
More broadly, the report said that China was steadily increasing its role and power around the world, while continuing to modernize and build up its military and inventory of ships, missiles and aircraft.
Specifically, it noted China’s plans to build its first overseas military facility in Djibouti to support its naval operations in the region.
The report also repeats assertions made by Defense Secretary Ash Carter that continued provocation by China may only improve US relations in the Asia Pacific.
“China’s increasingly assertive efforts to advance its national sovereignty and territorial claims, its forceful rhetoric, and lack of transparency about its growing military capabilities and strategic decision-making continue to raise tensions and have caused countries in the region to enhance their ties with the United States,” the report said.
US officials have been increasingly concerned China’s activities could be a prelude to enforcing a possible air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, similar to one it declared over disputed Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea in 2013.
As noted in previous year’s reports, China continues to target US government and defense department computer systems through cyber intrusions. The report said that in 2015, China used its cyber capabilities to spy on the United States and steal information from computer networks.
“The information targeted could potentially be used to benefit China’s defense industry, high technology industries, and provide the CCP insights into US leadership perspectives on key China issues,” the report said.
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