AP exclusive: US Admiral says China has fully militarized the islands

Over the South China Sea – China has fully militarized at least three of the islands in the disputed South China Sea, equipping them with anti-ship missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and increasingly offensive warplanes. The move, which threatens all countries operating in the vicinity, was announced on Sunday by a top U.S. military commander.

US Indo-Pacific Commander Adv. John C. Aquilino said the hostile move was in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s past assurances that Beijing would not turn artificial islands in rival waters into military bases. These efforts were part of China’s military build-up, he said.

“I think in the last 20 years we have witnessed the largest military build-up by the PRC since World War II,” Aquilino told the Associated Press in an interview, using the initials of China’s official name. “They have improved all their capabilities and the weapons they are building are destabilizing the region.”

There was no immediate word from Chinese officials. Beijing maintains that its military profile is entirely defensive, with measures being taken to protect its sovereign rights. But after years of increased military spending, China now boasts the world’s second-largest defense budget after the United States, and is rapidly modernizing its weapons system with J-20 stealth fighters, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers, a third of which are under construction. .

Aquilino spoke to the AP on a U.S. Navy recovery aircraft that flew near Chinese-controlled outposts in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most hotly contested territories. During the patrol, the P-8A Poseidon plane was repeatedly warned by Chinese callers that it had entered illegally, which they said was Chinese territory, and ordered the plane to evacuate.

“China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands as well as the surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misconceptions, “said a stern radio message in a covert threat.

But the U.S. Navy plane rejected multiple warnings, and witnesses to two AP journalists invited to the ship pressurized it with its resumption in brief but exciting moments. “I am a sovereign defense US naval aircraft conducting legitimate military activity outside the national airspace of any coastal state,” a U.S. pilot told Chinese radio.

“The exercise of these rights is guaranteed by international law and I am doing my part to uphold the rights and duties of all states,” he said.

Navy Commanding Officer Joel Martinez, who led the crew of the P-8A Poseidon, said an incident occurred when a Chinese jet flew near a U.S. aircraft in a dangerous tactic in the disputed area. He said the U.S. flight crew had quietly reminded the Chinese to abide by aviation safety rules.

As the P-8A Poseidon flew 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) below the Chinese-occupied wall, some looked like small towns on screen monitors, multi-storey buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways, and white spheres. Aquilino’s structure was radar. Near the Fairy Cross, more than 40 unspecified ships were apparently seen anchored.

Aquilino said construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military facilities at the Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fire Cross seemed to be completed, but it remains to be seen whether China will continue to build military infrastructure in other regions.

“The task of these islands is to extend the PRC’s offensive capabilities beyond their continental coast,” he said. “They can fly all the offensive capabilities of fighters, bombers and missile systems.”

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

“So this threat exists, so it’s very worrying for the militarization of these islands,” he said. “They threaten all countries that operate in the vicinity and all international seas and airspace.”

China tried to shore up its vast territorial claims over virtually the entire South China Sea by building island bases on coral reefs almost a decade ago. The United States responded by sending its warships through the region in what it called Operation Mission. The United States has no claims of its own, but has deployed naval ships and aircraft for decades to provide free navigation and patrol on international waterways and airways.

China regularly opposes any US military action in the region. Other groups – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei – claim all or part of the sea, through which about $ 5 trillion worth of goods are shipped each year.

Despite China’s aggression, long-running regional disputes should only be resolved peacefully, Aquilino said, citing the Philippine government’s successful move to bring its dispute with China to international arbitration in 2013 as a good template.

The lawsuit, filed by a UN-backed arbitral tribunal, rejected China’s explicit historical claims in the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing has denied the allegations in a statement issued Friday stating “Similar, baseless allegations concerning Beijing’s intelligence have been made more than once.

Aquilino said Washington’s main goal in the disputed area is to “prevent war” through barriers and promote peace and stability, with American allies and partners involved in the project to that end.

“Resistance must fail, my second mission is to prepare for war and victory,” said Aquilino, who leads the largest U.S. combat command with 380,000 military and civilian personnel covering 36 countries and territories.

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David Rising, author of the Associated Press on the Bank, contributed to this report.

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