The United States has for the first time urged China to remove missile systems deployed to contested man-made islands in the South China Sea, the Pentagon said Friday.
The move, believed to be the first time the U.S. had directly addressed the issue, came in a statement recapping high-level talks between the two sides in Washington on Friday.
“The United States called on China to withdraw its missile systems from disputed features in the Spratly Islands, and reaffirmed that all countries should avoid addressing disputes through coercion or intimidation,” the statement said.
The Pentagon had previously declined to comment on a May report quoting unnamed sources with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence reports as saying that the anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems had been deployed to Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in April or early May.
The islands, known as China’s “Big Three,” are located in the disputed Spratly chain and have been built up into garrisons with massive radar installations, scores of buildings and military-grade runways. All three are also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, designated as YJ-12B, allow China to strike surface vessels within 400 to 500 km of the islets, while the long-range surface-to-air missiles, designated as HQ-9B, have an expected range of 200 km for targeting aircraft, drones and cruise missiles.
Beijing has constructed a series of military outposts throughout the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters, where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also routinely operate.
In July 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a landmark ruling that Beijing’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim to the South China Sea had no legal basis. China has rejected the international tribunal’s ruling.
Beijing says its facilities in the waters are for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea.
Jeffrey Ordaniel, a research fellow at the Pacific Forum, said on Twitter that although the demand by the U.S. was a first, it was “very unlikely” that China would heed that call.
“China faced no consequences when it ignored” U.S. calls to halt reclamation and new construction in the South China Sea, he said, adding that there was “no reason for it to fold now.”
Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp., said that the Pentagon could be attempting to find militarized activities “that can be rolled back to status quo ante.”
“Obviously artificial island-building cannot be rolled back,” Grossman said. “But missile systems can be easily removed as a confidence-building measure.”
However, Grossman noted, “they can just as easily be redeployed to the region if relations sour once again.”
In their talks Friday, the United States insisted it was not pursuing a new Cold War with China, though the two powers could only paper over their deepening differences.
The two rivals’ defense chiefs and top foreign affairs officials met for a regular dialogue that had been pushed back amid months of spiraling tensions between the two sides.
“The United States is not pursuing a Cold War or containment policy with China,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a joint televised news conference.
“Rather, we want to ensure that China acts responsibly and fairly in support of security and prosperity in each of our two countries,” Pompeo said.
Still Pompeo also was clear in addressing U.S. concerns, including Beijing’s increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea. In the latest in a series of incidents, a Chinese destroyer came perilously close — 45 meters — to a U.S. warship in late September in what the U.S. Navy called an “unsafe and unprofessional maneuver.”
“We have continued concerns about China’s activities and militarization in the South China Sea,” Pompeo said following the talks. “We pressed China to live up to its past commitments in this area.”
The talks included Pompeo, U.S. defense chief Jim Mattis, Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. The annual U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue was originally set for Beijing last month but had been called off amid rising tensions.
Yang said China was committed to “nonconfrontation” but that Beijing had the right to build “necessary defense facilities” on what it considers its own territory. He also blasted Washington for its own “militarization” of the waterway, urging it to stop sending warships and military planes near the islands Beijing claims.
“There is no such problem of freedom of navigation and overflights being obstructed, so to use this issue as an excuse to military action is unjustifiable,” he said.
“The Chinese side made it clear to the United States that it should stop sending its vessels and military aircraft close to Chinese islands and reefs and stop actions that undermine China’s sovereignty and security interests,” he said.
Mattis called the talks “candid” and said that the two militaries looked to improve communication and avoid “miscalculation” at sea.
The U.S. defense chief also said the two sides had “discussed the importance for all military, law enforcement, and civilian vessels and aircraft, including those in the PLA Navy, the Chinese Coast Guard, and the PRC Maritime Militia, to operate in a safe and professional manner, in accordance with international law, as we seek peaceful resolution of all disputes in the South China Sea.”
The mention of the so-called maritime militia, which the Pentagon says is “the world’s largest” and “has organizational ties to, and is sometimes directed by, China’s armed forces,” was unusual in that it is rarely mentioned in formal, high-level talks.
Mattis was also upfront that the U.S. would continue its so-called freedom of navigation program. Those operations are intended to enforce the right of free passage in international waters under international law.
“We made clear that the United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Mattis said.
Rand Corp.’s Grossman said that Washington and Beijing are willing to continue dialogue despite their deep differences.
“That means the relationship has matured enough to perhaps withstand serious turbulence,” he said. “I don’t think we’re in a new Cold War and it’s possible to stay out of one if each side can appreciate that competition shouldn’t necessarily imply an existential threat to our respective ways of life.”
The two sides also underscored their “shared desire to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” according to Mattis — though Washington and Pyongyang have been at odds over the process for ridding it of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
On Taiwan, Pompeo criticized Beijing’s “increasing efforts to coerce others, constraining Taiwan’s international space” — a reference to the Chinese pressure campaign on countries with diplomatic ties to the self-ruled island.
The top U.S. diplomat also urged China to respect the human rights of the largely Muslim Uighur population in its far-west Xinjiang region.
Yang, the Politburo member, responded that “China respects human rights” but that “matters related to Xinjiang are China’s internal affairs. Foreign countries have no right to interfere.”
The talks came several weeks ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s scheduled meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
While the Washington talks focused on security, trade is at the heart of tensions between the world’s two biggest economies.
Trump has slapped $250 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods, accusing Beijing of nefarious trading practices. Retaliatory measures quickly followed.
Yang voiced hope for a quick resolution.
“A trade war, instead of leading to any solution, will only end up hurting both sides and the global economy,” he said.
“The door to negotiation remains open. And let’s not forget how our two sides have successfully navigated through previous rough patches in our economic and trade relations,” he said.
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