THE Pentagon is considering sending military aircraft and ships around China’s land reclamation projects in the Spratly archipelago as the tension in the South China Sea rises, a US official said Tuesday.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter requested options that include sending aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of reefs that China has been building up in the Spratly island chain, the official said.
China has been building artificial islands atop coral reefs in the Spratly archipelago for months now. The inclusion of runways and other potential military installations have caused concern among Pentagon officials, who fear that Beijing may be making a power play for the strategic waterway.
Last month, US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris accused China of building a “great wall of sand” with “provocative actions towards smaller claimant states.”
China maintains that it has every right to build on its own territory, and that the islands will ultimately provide stations for disaster mitigation, scientific research, and navigation safety. These assurances have done little to soothe Washington, and according to an anonymous Pentagon official speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the US may soon send military aircraft and naval vessels to enforce “freedom of navigation” around the disputed islands.
“We are considering how to demonstrate freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade,” the official said. “The US and its allies have a very different view than China over the rules of the road in the South China Sea.”
The draft request cane directly from Carter, and seeks to review the Pentagon’s options for sending military vehicles within 12 nautical miles of Beijing’s artificial islands.
Washington has steadily made moves to bolster its presence in the South China Sea. Harris announced in March that the US Navy would be shifting 60 percent of its fleet into the Pacific by 2020, and would expand its cooperation with India.
The US Navy has also admitted to flying its most advanced spy plane – the P-8A Poseidon – out of the Philippines earlier this year. Capable of both anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, the plane has been regularly monitoring the South China Sea region.
In March, the United States Senate also requested that the US adopt a formal strategy for dealing with Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
While China claims nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea, there are disputed, overlapping claims by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia. All of these countries also claim various parts of the Spratly Archipelago.
Nearly $5 trillion in trade passes through the contested waterway each year.
The Philippines said the Pentagon’s announcement that it is sending military aircraft and ships to the disputed South China Sea affirms the commitment between the two countries to freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade.
“The Philippines believes that the US, as well as all responsible members of international community, do have an interest and say in what is happening in the South China Sea, considering that what is at issue is freedom of navigation, unimpeded flow of commerce, the health of the region’s marine environmental and ecosystem, and the rule of law,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose in a text message said.
US patrols would directly challenge Chinese efforts to expand Beijing’s influence in the disputed region by adding territory through a massive island-building exercise.
The Philippines earlier sought more “substantive” support from its long-time security ally, the United States, to counter China’s rapid expansion in the South China Sea.
China’s rapid reclamation around seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea has alarmed claimants, including the Philippines and Vietnam, and drawn growing criticism from US government officials and the military.
In a television interview, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that there was a plan by the US to send more Navy and Air Force assets to the region, but he declined to provide details.
The practice of sending ships and aircraft near the islands would be in line with regular US military “freedom of navigation” operations, which it conducted last year to challenge maritime claims of 19 countries, including China, Carter said.
Also on Wednesday, the Department of Foreign Affiars slammmed China for criticizing its practice of bringing journalists to Pag-asa Island, which Beijing claims as its own.
“We have all the right to do such actions and no one can question it because we own it,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said in latest war of words between the two sides.
Journalists visited Pag-asa island Monday led by Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang.
Beijing called the Philippines a “rule-violator” and “troublemaker” for arranging the trip to the island also known by its international name, Thitu.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the Philippines’ action was endangering international law.
Jose maintained that no violation was committed by the Philippines.
“It is not a violation because Pag-asa is within our sovereign territory,” he said.
Residents on Pag-asa Island continue to worry about their security as the Chinese continue their reclamation activities from mearby Kagitingan (Fiery Reef), which is within the Kalayaan Island Group town in Palawan.
KIG Mayor Bito-onon said powerful lights “probably from Chinese ships” coming from the reclamation site and other directions were being flashed in the middle of the night for several seconds on the island.
Fishermen living on the island and even those from mainland Palawan and others parts of Western Philippines have also stopped going near Kagitingan reef to fish because Chinese on speedboats with mounted guns or ships harass them, Bito-onon said.
But Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez urged Filipino fishermen not to fear going to KIG and even in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to fish, because they are well within the country’s 220-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
“Our message (to Filipino fishermen) is to continue going there (because) it is ours. That’s traditional fishing country,” he said. – Vito Barcelo, Florante S. Solmerin, PNA