AP exclusive: US admiral claims China has fully militarized the islands

OVER THE SOUTH CHINA SEA (AP) — China has fully militarized at least three of the many islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-ship missile systems. aircraft, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby, a top US military commander said Sunday.

US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John C. Aquilino said the hostile actions stood in stark contrast to past assurances from Chinese President Xi Jinping. that Beijing would not turn artificial islands in disputed waters into military bases. The efforts were part of flexing China’s military strength, he said.

“I think in the last 20 years we’ve seen the biggest military build-up since World War II by the PRC,” Aquilino told The Associated Press in an interview, using the initials of PRC’s official name. China. “They have developed all their capabilities and this accumulation of weapons is destabilizing the region.”

There was no immediate comment from Chinese officials. Beijing maintains that its military profile is purely defensive, arranged to protect what it says are its sovereign rights. But after years of increased military spendingChina now has the world’s second-largest defense budget after the United States and is rapidly modernizing its force with weapons systems including the J-20 stealth fighter, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers, with a third under construction.

Aquilino spoke to the AP aboard a US Navy reconnaissance plane that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the Spratly Archipelago in the South China Sea, one of the regions the most disputed. in the world. During the patrol, the P-8A Poseidon aircraft was repeatedly warned by Chinese callers that it had illegally entered what they said was Chinese territory and ordered the aircraft to move away .

“China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, as well as the surrounding maritime areas. Walk away immediately to avoid misjudgment,” one of the stern radio messages said in a veiled threat.

But the US Navy plane dismissed multiple warnings and defiantly continued its reconnaissance in brief but tense moments witnessed by two AP journalists invited on board. “I am a sovereign, immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” an American pilot radioed the Chinese.

“The exercise of these rights is guaranteed by international law and I act with respect for the rights and duties of all States,” he said.

Navy Commander Joel Martinez, who led the crew of the P-8A Poseidon, said there was an incident when a Chinese plane flew close to an American plane during a dangerous maneuver in the disputed region. The American flight crew calmly reminded the Chinese to abide by aviation safety rules, he said.

As the P-8A Poseidon flew as low as 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) near Chinese-occupied reefs, some looked like small towns on screens, with multi-story buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, tracks and white circles. the structures Aquilino said were radars. Near Fiery Cross over 40 unspecified vessels could be seen apparently anchored.

Aquilino said the construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military installations on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross appeared to have been completed, but it remains to be seen whether China will continue. construction of military infrastructure in other areas.

“The function of these islands is to extend the PRC’s offensive capability beyond their mainland coasts,” he said. “They can fly fighters, bombers, and all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”

He said any military and civilian aircraft flying over the disputed waterway could easily come within range of the Chinese islands’ missile system.

“So that’s the threat that’s there, that’s why it’s such a concern for the militarization of these islands,” he said. “They threaten all nations operating nearby and all international sea and air space.”

China sought to cement its vast territorial claims over nearly all of the South China Sea by building island bases on coral atolls nearly a decade ago. The United States responded by sending its warships to the region on what it calls freedom of operation missions. The United States has no claims itself, but has deployed naval ships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote free navigation in international waterways and airspace.

China regularly opposes any US military action in the region. The other parties – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei – lay claim to all or part of the sea, through which around $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.

Despite China’s aggression, long-simmering territorial disputes should only be resolved peacefully, Aquilino said, and cited the Philippine government’s successful decision to submit its disputes with China to international arbitration in 2013 as a good model.

A UN-backed arbitration tribunal that heard the case invalidated China’s sweeping historic claims to the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. decision as a sham and continues to challenge it.

Washington’s primary goal in the disputed region is “to prevent war” through deterrence and to promote peace and stability, including by engaging U.S. allies and partners in projects with that objective, Aquilino said.

“If deterrence fails, my second mission is to be ready to fight and win,” said Aquilino, who heads the largest US combat command with 380,000 military and civilian personnel spanning 36 nations and territories.

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Associated Press writer David Rising in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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