Beijing has ‘fully militarized’ isles

US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John Aquilino said if deterrence fails in the disputed area, ‘my second mission is to be prepared to fight and win’

China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built up in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby, a top US military commander said on Sunday.

US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John Aquilino said that the hostile actions were in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) past assurances that Beijing would not transform the artificially enlarged islands in contested waters into military bases.

The efforts were the flexing of military muscle by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), he said.

Photo: AP

“I think over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC,” Aquilino told The Associated Press (AP) in an interview.

“They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region,” Aquilino said.

There were no immediate comments from Chinese officials.

Beijing maintains its military profile is purely defensive, arranged to protect what it says are its sovereign rights.

Aquilino spoke with the AP onboard a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), one of the most hotly contested regions in the world.

During the patrol, the P-8A Poseidon plane was repeatedly warned by Chinese callers that it had illegally entered what they said was China’s territory and ordered the plane to move away.

However, the US Navy plane dismissed the multiple warnings and pressed on defiantly with its reconnaissance in brief but tense moments witnessed by two AP journalists invited onboard.

“I am a sovereign, immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” the US pilot radioed back to the Chinese.

Aquilino said the construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military facilities on Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁), Subi Reef (Jhubi Reef, 渚碧礁) and Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) appeared to have been completed, but it remains to be seen whether China will pursue the construction of military infrastructure in other areas.

“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,” he said. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”

Washington’s main objective in the disputed region is “to prevent war” through deterrence, and promote peace and stability, including by engaging US allies and partners in projects with that objective, Aquilino said.

“Should deterrence fail, my second mission is to be prepared to fight and win,” said Aquilino, who leads the largest US combatant command with 380,000 military and civilian personnel covering 36 nations and territories.

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