The South China Sea has been a source of tensions between China and the U.S. of late for a long time now. Assessing the actions and intentions of China, a detailed Pentagon report on the military might of China focuses attention on the reclaiming of more than 3,200 acres of land in the Spratly Islands in the contentious South China Sea.
The annual defence report includes 7 full pages about South China Sea construction, up from 2 paragraphs last year. The detailed assessment for the first time in Pentagon’s annual report shows the extent of U.S. concern over ‘militarizing the South China Sea’ and about ‘freedom of navigational operations’.
The 2016 report says airstrips are under construction at Mischief and Subi Reefs, where China is in the ‘final stages of primary infrastructure construction’. That work includes building communication and surveillance systems and logistical support facilities, the report said.
The report said that three of the outposts in the Spratly Islands now have nearly 10,000 ft runways and large ports in various stages of construction. China is developing and militarizing those man-made islands so it will have greater control over the maritime region without resorting to armed conflict.
“The airfields, berthing areas, and resupply facilities will allow China to maintain a more flexible and persistent coast guard and military presence in the area,” the report said. “This would improve China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to China, and reduce the time required to deploy them,” it further added.
The report, released Friday, also included seven pages of diagrams and before-and-after satellite images of the construction. One image showed how a small sandy area was now an island 3.5 km long with a runway. It also included photos of the Fiery Cross Reef Outpost which lies between Philippines and Vietnam.
China’s land-reclamation efforts, that have converted tiny atolls and sand reefs into islands capable of harbouring military facilities is a well known fact. China has created harbours to make it easier for large ships to berth, it has constructed runways for military planes and also shifted military equipment to these islands.
“Recent land reclamation activity has little legal effect, but will support China’s ability to sustain longer patrols in the South China Sea,” the report notes.
Even if it doesn’t give China any new territorial rights, the airfields, ship facilities, surveillance and weapons equipment, “would improve China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to China, and reduce the time required to deploy them,” the report said.
Apart from the 3,200 acres in the Spratleys, China is also building in the Paracels, further northwest, including the contested Woody Island. It has also deployed anti-aircraft missiles to Woody Island.
China claims for it’s own nearly all of the sea, even waters close to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Vietnam, China and Taiwan all claim the Paracels, while the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, China and Brunei claim all or parts of the Spratlys.
The U.S. says it takes no side in these conflicting claims but supports freedom of passage through the area, which is one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
U.S. is concerned that China could enforce a possible air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. China has continued to assert sovereignty over the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan. For instance, in 2012, “China restricted Philippine fruit imports during the height of Scarborough Reef tensions.”
China defends its land reclamation by saying it is their territory, adding that the buildings and infrastructure are for civilian purposes and to support fishermen.
The report also detailed how China is steadily amping up its military power and presence globally by modernizing its short, medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, high-performance aircraft, integrated air defense networks, information operations capabilities and amphibious and airborne assault units as well as building up its inventory of ships, missiles and aircraft to increase its power.
Specifically, it notes China’s plans to build its first overseas military facility in Djibouti to help support naval operations in the region.
Meanwhile, U.S. keeps sending warships and surveillance aircraft near the islands to exercise its ‘freedom of navigation’ operations. Earlier this week the destroyer William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Fiery Cross Reef.