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A file photo of a Chinese marine surveillance ship is seen in South China Sea. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of a Chinese marine surveillance ship is seen in South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

China creating artificial islands in South China Sea: US Admiral

Philippines has already accused China of undertaking large-scale reclamation work on contested reefs, including the building of airstrips

Canberra: China’s creation of more than four square kilometers (1.5 square miles) of artificial islands in the South China Sea is increasing tensions with the US and its allies, according to Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris.

“What’s really drawing a lot of concern in the here and now is the unprecedented land reclamation currently being conducted by China," Admiral Harris told a conference on Tuesday in Canberra. “China is building artificial land by pumping sand on to live coral reefs — some of them submerged — and paving over them with concrete."

China, alongside a number of Southeast Asian nations, contests parts of the waters that house some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The Philippines has accused China of undertaking large-scale reclamation work on contested reefs, including the building of airstrips.

Disputes over the sea, with China claiming about four- fifths under a so-called nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map, have escalated as China expands the reach of its military to back its territorial interests and challenges decades of US navy dominance in the Pacific. The tensions risk overshadowing trade and investment ties with Southeast Asia.

The US urged all claimants to comply with the 2002 Declaration of Conduct between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where the parties committed to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability," Harris said.

“How China proceeds will be a key indicator of whether the region is heading towards confrontation or cooperation," he said.

‘New country’

China’s reclamation work in the South China Sea may create inhabited islands that declare allegiance to the government in Beijing, bringing its military ever-closer to the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino said last week in an interview. If the reefs were built up enough and populated, “somebody might say ‘we’re a new country,’" he said.

“At some point in time they become inhabited, will that be the basis of a new claim, right of self-determination, we want to be part of China?" Aquino said. “One of these particular islands, the Mischief Reef, is very close to Palawan. Suddenly we’re a hop, skip and a jump from their various weapons of war."

China is building mall-like structures in the Spratly islands, with some reaching several stories on the Cuarteron and Gaven reefs, Philippine defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez told reporters earlier this month.

Engaging China

While Harris said he was hopeful that China would contribute to stability in the Asia-Pacific region, he added: “hope is not a strategy."

“We also continue to constructively engage China, exploring new confidence building measures, while encouraging China to play a responsible role in supporting international rules and norms in the maritime domain," Harris said.

Harris was speaking in Australia’s capital at a conference on the US ally’s sea-surface military fleet.

Earlier on Tuesday, Australian defence minister Kevin Andrews urged the country’s military shipbuilding industry to cut costs and become more productive to win contracts as the government seeks to buy 40 ships and submarines over the next two decades.

Australia pays about 40% more for domestic-built vessels over US benchmarks due to inefficiencies in the industry, Andrews said.

Harris called on Australia, which hosts as many as 2,500 Marines at its northern port of Darwin as part of the US economic and strategic “pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region, to make its plans for the Navy “soon."

“These are strategic decisions that only you can make, choices that will have ripple effects in the coming decades, choices that will define your nation’s place in the middle and latter half of this naval century," Harris said. Bloomberg

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