Beijing on Wednesday said it is “extremely concerned” with the Pentagon’s reported plan to send warships and aircraft to patrol around China’s land reclamation projects in the Spratlys archipelago as the tension in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) became a lot more heated.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Washington needs to clarify its stance on the matter.
She added that China upholds freedom of navigation in the area but that does not mean foreign forces can operate freely there.
Quoting an anonymous US defense department official, a Wall Street Journal report said US forces would 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.”
Tension in the South China Sea further escalated in late March after satellite images showing massive reclamations of Chinese-controlled areas within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines were made public.
The inclusion of runways and other potential military installations has caused a panic among Pentagon officials, who fear that Beijing may be making a power play for the strategic waterway.
Beijing has offered such sites to Washington to use for humanitarian and rescue efforts but the US rejected the offer, saying such purposes do not justify China’s actions in the contested waters.
About 90 percent of the region, believed to be rich in oil and mineral deposits, is being claimed by China based on a supposedly ancient nine-dash line.
Parts of the resource-rich waters are also being claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam.
Manila and Hanoi have taken their territorial disputes with Beijing to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea for arbitration.
A verdict is expected next year but Beijing has refused to participate and would reject any finding against it.
According to the Wall Street Journal report, a draft request directly from US Defense Secretary Ash Carter sought 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. Admiral Harry Harris Jr. of the US Pacific Fleet 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.
Also 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.
It is possible that the Pentagon’s considerations are in response to this appeal.
A destroyer of the South China Sea Fleet of the Chinese Navy fired a missile during a training exercise.
Also throwing itself into the mix is Japan, another country with no territorial claim in the region.
The Japanese Navy recently conducted naval exercises with Philippines, and Tokyo has indicated that it may take part in joint air patrols with the US.
Philippine military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. looked worried as he surveys rusted cranes and eroded runway on the Philippine-occupied Pagasa island, now on the frontline of a rapidly intensifying construction war in the South China Sea.
Fewer than 48 kilometers, China’s giant construction cranes glint on the horizon, a sign of the Asian giant’s reef-building frenzy in the disputed Spratly chain that has seen new islands appear seemingly overnight.
As China and fellow rival claimant Vietnam race to pave over reefs and build structures in the strategically important sea, the Philippines stands out as a laggard.
The 356 residents of Pagasa fear they will soon be forced out by China’s aggressive land grab, in a conflict fought, so far, with dredgers and cement.
“Before we landed, we saw the reclamation in the [nearby]Subi Reef and it’s really enormous,” Catapang said on a tour of the island’s largely decrepit facilities.
An old Navy transport ship lay half-submerged in waters off the coast, with two anti-aircraft guns the only visible defenses.
The Philippines, which occupies nine islands or reefs in the chain, in contrast has done very little — partly because of funding constraints, but also because it is pinning its hopes on having the United Nations mediate the dispute.
The military says that since last month, Chinese vessels off Subi Reef have warned Philippine Air Force planes flying in and out of Pagasa to leave, saying they are violating its military airspace.
“This is bad for us who live here. We depend on the planes to deliver our food,” one concerned municipal employee, 37-year-old Larry Jugo, told Agence France-Presse.
Rear Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the military’s Western Command, said the action was effectively an enforcement of an undeclared air defense identification zone.
“They build these things, they say for legal reasons, but for military purposes as necessary. That’s very alarming,” he noted.
Elsewhere in the Spratlys, Lopez said China has also been harassing Filipino vessels supplying Marines on Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
The puny unit of nine men lives on a rusting navy transport BRP Sierra Madre ship that had been deliberately grounded on a reef.
China has also been driving away Filipino fishermen at the Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal), 595 kilometers to the northeast of the Spratlys and within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but which China has controlled since 2012.
Philippine authorities and regional analysts see it as a powerful campaign aimed at making it impossible for the Philippines to hold on to its claims.
“As far as I know, there is not much that the Philippines can do,” even if it wins its UN case, said Harry Sa, an American research analyst for the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“I think China is doing something smart: It is gaining territory without firing a single shot.”
WITH AFP AND PNA/SPUTNIK