The war of words between the United States and China over disputed islands in the South China Sea intensified over the weekend, with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter telling an assembly of Asian-Pacific defense officials in Singapore the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about Chinese activity, and the increased risk of “miscalculation or conflict.”
“China has reclaimed over 2000 acres, more than all other claimants combined… and China did so in only the last 18 months,” said Carter, as reported by Financial Review. “It is unclear how much farther China will go.”
Judging by China’s response, they plan to go quite far indeed.
“The United States disregards history, legal principles and the facts,” said a Chinese delegate to the forum Carter addressed. “China’s sovereignty and relevant rights were established a long time ago in the South China Sea.”
The delegate insisted China’s plans were “legal, reasonable, conforms to the situation and neither impacts nor targets any country.”
This is being described in the media as a “measured” response from China.
The Wall Street Journal reports China has positioned at least two motorized artillery pieces on the artificial islands it has created in the area. The weapons were detected with one of those U.S. surveillance flights China that is growing churlish about.
“While the artillery wouldn’t pose a threat to U.S. planes or ships, U.S. officials said it could reach neighboring islands and that its presence was at odds with China’s public statements that the reclaimed islands are mainly for civilian use,” the Journal explains, quoting a U.S. official who described the guns as a largely “symbolic” assertion of ownership.
Over the weekend, Australia declared that it would continue long-range surveillance flights over the disputed islands, no matter what China says. “We’ve been doing it for decades, we’re doing it currently…and we’ll continue to do it into the future,” said Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews. “We don’t see there’ll be any change to that operation. It’s been a long-term operation and it’s been well known by all the countries in the region.”
There are fears China will do more than complain about aerial and naval surveillance in the area. “This has the potential to escalate into one of the deadliest conflicts of our time, if not history,” said Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein, as quoted by Financial Review. “Inflamed rhetoric does not do any nation any good.”
Japan’s defense minister said that “if we leave any unlawful situation unattended, order will soon turn to disorder, and peace and stability will collapse” – a statement China would surely describe as “inflamed rhetoric.” Beijing is aggressively calling everyone else’s bluff in the South China Sea, casting aside claims from the Philippines and Vietnam, along with American assertions about international law, confident that the injured parties will do nothing except complain. Those resource-rich islands are worth a lot of press-conference whining and international-forum castigation to China.