WASHINGTON/BEIJING – The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said Tuesday that China is seeking control of East Asia, comments that could further inflame tensions between the two world powers.
Adm. Harry Harris, Jr., told a congressional hearing that China’s construction and military facilities are changing the operational landscape in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing has undertaken a massive land reclamation effort to press its sweeping territorial claims.
Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China is militarizing the South China Sea, “and you have to believe in a flat earth to think otherwise.”
Asked what about the strategic goal of China’s military buildup in the region, Harris told lawmakers: “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” When asked if that meant regional control, Harris concurred.
His comments are likely to anger Beijing, whose top diplomat is due to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington later Tuesday at a fraught time in relations.
The two sides have been trading accusations over militarization in the South China Sea, an important thoroughfare for world trade where six Asian governments have competing territorial claims. The U.S. is not a claimant but says it has an interest in maintaining peace and stability there, and freedom of navigation and commerce.
The rhetoric has heated up since it emerged last week that China had deployed anti-aircraft missiles on a disputed island in the Paracels chain. Then on Monday, a U.S. think tank reported that China has built new radar facilities in the Spratly Islands, which lie farther south. Harris confirmed new radar on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys.
China denies it has aggressive intent. Its Foreign Ministry on Tuesday reasserted Beijing’s right to develop its South China Sea island outposts, saying it has sovereignty over them.
“China is exercising the right of self-preservation that every country enjoys according to international law, which is beyond reproach,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.
Another source of tensions with the U.S. has been differences over how to respond to North Korea’s latest nuclear test and rocket launch. It’s been seven weeks since the nuclear test and the U.S. and China still haven’t agreed on how to censure Pyongyang.
While China has joined in the international criticism, it has balked at imposing the kind of tough economic sanctions that the U.S. wants, fearing it could threaten the stability of North Korea, a neighbor and traditional ally of Beijing.
In the meantime, the U.S. has taken tougher steps of its own, tightening sanctions and announcing it will hold formal talks with its close ally South Korea on deploying a missile defense system that China fears could be used against it as well North Korea.
Harris said it was “preposterous” that China would try to “wedge itself” between South Korea and the U.S. for a missile defense system designed to defend Americans and Koreans on the Korean Peninsula.
He said if China is truly concerned, it should intervene with North Korea and convince it to quit its cycle of provocations.
Kerry and Wang are expected to discuss Tuesday how to reach a compromise over a U.N. Security Council resolution against North Korea, and also the mounting differences over the South China Sea — issues that have put a growing strain on efforts to forge a cooperative relationship.
The Obama administration faces congressional pressure to step up its efforts to counter China.
Republican Sen. John McCain said that China is behaving like a “bully” in the Asia-Pacific. He said the administration’s “risk aversion” has failed to prevent China’s coercive behavior. He called for more freedom of navigation operations and possibly boosting the U.S. military posture in the region. McCain suggested basing a second U.S. aircraft carrier in Japan.
A couple of U.S. Navy operations close to disputed land since October have already riled Beijing.
China is installing radar facilities on its artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, an American think tank has said, in a move analysts warned would “exponentially improve” the country’s monitoring capacities.
Satellite imagery of Cuarteron reef in the Spratlys released by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) showed what appeared to be a high-frequency radar installation, as well as a lighthouse, underground bunker, helipad and other communications equipment.
The photographs came only a week after U.S. officials said China had deployed surface to air missiles in the Paracel islands farther north, and with tensions mounting in the strategically vital region.
“Placement of a high frequency radar on Cuarteron Reef would significantly bolster China’s ability to monitor surface and air traffic coming north from the Malacca Straits and other strategically important channels,” said CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Images of other small reefs nearby, which China has transformed into artificial islands — Gaven, Hughes, and Johnson South — revealed other features identified by CSIS as probable radar towers, gun emplacements, bunkers, helipads and quays.
CSIS said that while the earlier deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles was “notable” it “does not alter the military balance in the South China Sea.”
But it went on: “New radar facilities being developed in the Spratlys, on the other hand, could significantly change the operational landscape.”
Adm. Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told lawmakers in Washington on Tuesday that the installation of radars and other equipment was raising the stakes in the region.
“China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea,” Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Beijing claims almost the whole of the South China Sea — through which a third of the world’s oil passes — while several other littoral states have competing claims, as does Taiwan.
The United States has in recent months sent warships to sail within 12 nautical miles — the usual territorial limit around natural land — of a disputed island and one of China’s artificial constructions in what it says is a defense of the right to free passage.
The Chinese military has already been using the islands to monitor military and civilian traffic electronically but the new radar installations “will exponentially improve that capability,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.
They would be highly vulnerable in conflict but would give China “a significant intelligence advantage — and make it much harder for the U.S. and other regional navies and air forces to move through the South China Sea undetected,” he added.
Over-the-horizon radar is vital for missile targeting, he noted.
Last week China confirmed it had placed “weapons” on Woody Island in the Paracels, defending what it said was its sovereign right to do so.
Asked about the radar installations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday that the area was Chinese territory “beyond dispute” and Beijing was entitled under international law to the “necessary and limited deployment of defense facilities.”
“Verbally, what the U.S. talks about is freedom of navigation, but in its heart, perhaps what it’s thinking about is absolute hegemony on the sea,” she told a regular briefing.
Beijing says it defends the right to free passage, and insists its island building has civilian purposes, such as search and rescue facilities, as well as military.
A host of installations with potential military use are being developed, according to CSIS, including as many as three runways — at least one of them 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) long.
China is looking to deploy “all the defensive and offensive capability means that it has” as it seeks regional dominance, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, of Hong Kong Baptist University.
“In view of the weaknesses of other claimants, China will be able to dominate and then potentially control the South China Sea — its main objective being to force the U.S. Navy and Air Force to think twice before cruising or flying over the area,” he told AFP.
In the last three or four years, the Obama administration had become “more willing” to challenge Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, said Lin Wencheng, of Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University, adding: “The radar to some extent targets the U.S.’s military activities in this region.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was heading to Washington on Tuesday for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, where the issue was expected to be on the agenda.
Kerry told reporters last week: “There is every evidence, every day, that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of a serious concern.”