U.S. Rebukes China Over Maritime Dispute
Defense Secretary Ash Carter says U.S. will ‘fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows’
By Gordon Lubold in the Wall Street Journal
PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii—China has isolated itself by pursuing development of a chain of artificial islands in the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, in Washington’s most forceful rebuke yet of Beijing’s attempts to assert its territorial rights in international waters.
“There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” Mr. Carter said at a ceremony here to recognize a change of commanders at U.S. Pacific Command.
His remarks came a day after China laid out a strategy to shift its armed forces’ focus toward maritime warfare and prevent foreign powers from “meddling” in the South China Sea.
Beijing has defended its actions as legally proper and within the scope of its sovereignty.
The U.S. wants to resolve the international dispute over the islands peacefully, Mr. Carter said, but also wants “an immediate and lasting halt” to land reclamation by China and other claimants, which include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
“With its actions in the South China Sea, China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture,” Mr. Carter said.
The escalating rhetoric over the disputed territory has set the stage for a confrontation between senior Chinese and U.S. officials, including Mr. Carter, at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, an international security conference, this weekend.
Beijing rejected Mr. Carter’s rebuke.
“China’s determination to safeguard its own sovereignty and territorial integrity is rock-hard and unquestionable. The activities that China carries out are well within the scope of its sovereignty and are beyond reproach, said Zhu Haiquan, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. “We urge the U.S. side to honor its commitment of not taking sides on issues relating to sovereignty, stop irresponsible and provocative words and deeds, and make no attempts to play up the tension in the region.”
The U.S. defense secretary has sought to persuade Beijing to stop its construction of the islands, which consist of submerged reefs augmented by dredged materials. China has created a total of 2,000 acres of new land mass across seven islands, according to Pentagon officials. About 1,500 acres of those islands were built since January. Satellite images of the expanding land masses show China has built an airstrip on one of the islands that is large enough for fighter jets, transport planes and surveillance aircraft, significantly enhancing Beijing’s capability to patrol the skies in the area.
While pressing his criticism of Beijing, Mr. Carter hasn’t announced a change in U.S. posture over the islands. Earlier this month, Mr. Carter asked his staff to recommend options to address the issue, including flying aircraft and sailing vessels to within 12 nautical miles of the islands to reassert the right of navigational freedom.
For natural land structures, the 12-nautical mile limit is considered restricted area. Last week, a Navy surveillance plane flew near the islands and was given a warning by Chinese officials to keep back. But the flight didn’t cross the 12-mile threshold, which would have signaled a more dramatic shift in U.S. policy.
Beijing’s determination to expand the islands, which are among a group known as the Spratlys, about 800 miles off mainland China’s shoreline, is bringing the countries of the region together “in new ways” and those countries are demanding more American engagement in the Asia-Pacific, Mr. Carter said at Wednesday’s ceremony. The U.S. has sought to put greater emphasis on the region as part of a rebalancing of strategic focus.
The Philippines contests some of China’s claims in the South China Sea, but lacks modern military equipment needed to defend its maritime territory. Vietnam, another rival claimant, has invested in advanced capabilities such as modern fighter jets, submarines and land-attack cruise missiles, all from Russia. But even after these new weapon systems are in place several years from now, Beijing would enjoy overwhelming superiority in any confrontation with Hanoi.
The same couldn’t be said for a confrontation with the U.S., however.
The People’s Liberation Army has approximately 2,100 fighter or bomber aircraft in its hangars, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. But only a few hundred of those are considered modern aircraft.
China’s only aircraft carrier—while a huge leap forward for its navy—is still seen mainly as a practice platform for a future carrier fleet. A recent Pentagon review of China’s military modernization said Beijing is “investing in capabilities designed to defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party—including U.S.—intervention during a crisis or conflict.” In practice, that means hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles positioned near the coast to deter Japanese or American warships from coming anywhere near Chinese territory. China has a substantial submarine fleet as well, piling on more risk for enemy ships.
Beijing’s release of the military white paper came with a small courtesy: When President Barack Obama visited China last year, the two countries agreed on some “confidence-building measures” to enhance their relationship. As a result, Beijing notified Washington in advance that it would be releasing the white paper, just as the U.S. told China that the Pentagon would release its own analysis of Chinese military power earlier this month.
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