A powerful American naval officer has fired a warning at China for rapidly building “a Great Wall” of artificial islands across hotly-contested waters.
Admiral Harry Harris, soon to take charge of Pacific Command, told a dinner at the Australian War Memorial on Tuesday night that the string of new islands posed a serious threat to stability in the South China Sea.
He said the artificial expanse was “roughly the size of Canberra’s Black Mountain Nature Reserve” and that they stretched across some of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
Those sea lanes carry around 60 per cent of Australian trade, posing a major strategic conundrum for the Abbott government.
The comments by Admiral Harris are by far the most strident and colourful on the subject by a senior American leader.
They show the US pushing back against China’s assertive president, Xi Jinping, who had been seen to be “winning” a contest for maritime dominance at the expense of its neighbours.
His speech also poses a major test for Australia as it endeavours to engage in good relations with its major trading partner, China, while “hedging” against security risks by drawing closer to the US and other partners in the region.