HONG KONG — China’s island building program in the South China Sea may result in it gaining control of some of the world’s most important waterways, the US’ most senior military commander for Asia said.
“If this activity continues at pace, is that it — those would give them de facto control” of the maritime territory they claim, Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the US Pacific Command, told the US Senate. Adm Locklear said China could install long-range detection radars, base warships and warplanes on the islands, potentially giving it the ability to enforce an air defence identification zone.
Satellite photos this month showed images of Chinese dredgers at work at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, a feature also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. President Barack Obama said on April 10 that the US is concerned that China is using its “muscle and power” to dominate smaller countries in the region.
Adm Locklear said the pace of China’s building program was “astonishing” and added that the islands would improve China’s ability to locate a maritime security force in the waters that would be larger than the combined coast guards of the South-east Asian countries.
China claims about four-fifths of the South China Sea, home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, under a so-called nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also claim territory in the waters. China says it has a right to carry out construction work on its sovereign territory in the South China Sea.
“It certainly complicates the security environment,” said Adm Locklear. Efforts by the Association of South-east Asian Nations to work with China to develop a code of conduct in the South China Sea have not “produced very much at all”.
Adm Locklear said the US has reinvigorated its alliance with the Philippines and is looking at helping its government improve its minimum defence.
To help improve security in the region, the US had also developed partnerships with nations that it would not have considered possible over the past two decades, he said, citing Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.