Beijing has “fully militarized” several islands in the South China Sea and is engaged in a massive military buildup in the region, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command claimed, prompting a swift denial and counter-allegations from Chinese officials.
Speaking to the Associated Press for an interview on Sunday, INDOPAC commander Admiral John Aquilino said China is behind “the largest military buildup since World War II,” arguing that the PRC has “advanced all [of its] capabilities” and is now “destabilizing” the region.
Aquilino claimed Beijing has deployed “anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment” as well as “fighter jets” to three man-made islets in the contested South China Sea, where at least six nations maintain conflicting territorial and maritime claims.
“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.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to those charges on Tuesday, with spokesman Wang Wenbin insisting Beijing is within its rights to “deploy necessary defense facilities on its own territory” and that China’s actions have been “consistent with international law and beyond reproach.” He instead accused Washington of threatening military maneuvers in his country’s backyard.
“I need to point out that the US has been enhancing military deployment around the South China Sea in recent years and has frequently sent warships and military aircraft on a large scale for provocative purposes, which gravely threatens the sovereignty and security of littoral countries and undermines the sound order and navigation safety in these waters,” he said.
Though China argues it has “historical rights” to much of the South China Sea, the United States rejects its territorial claims, regarding most of the strategically important region as international waters.
Admiral Aquilino spoke to the AP’s Jim Gomez and Aaron Favila aboard a Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane, which during the interview reportedly “flew near Chinese-held outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago” despite repeated warnings from Chinese authorities to leave the area “immediately.”
“I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” the American pilot replied by radio. “Exercising these rights is guaranteed by international law and I am operating with due regard to the rights and duties of all states.”
Similar fly-bys and sail-throughs in the South China Sea have been a regular feature of the Joe Biden administration, which has sent guided-missile destroyers and other warships into the contested Taiwan Strait on a near-monthly basis. Beijing has condemned those moves as provocative time and again, but Washington maintains it is merely ensuring the “freedom of navigation” in the region.