Security analysts expressed doubts Monday that Beijing would heed Washington’s demand to remove its missile systems from a disputed South China Sea island chain, despite a rare statement from the United States urging the Chinese to do so.
The statement, released at the end of last week’s second U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington, was believed to be the first time the United States had directly addressed the issue as it confirmed earlier reports of Chinese missile deployments in the Spratly islands.
“It is certain that they [China] would not demilitarize the islands,” Seth Cropsey, director at the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told BenarNews. “There is no evidence that any of their aggressive moves in the South China Sea have been moderated. The evidence is to the contrary.”
“It is extremely unlikely that a statement from a U.S. official or two is going to reverse the course of policy of China over the past 10 years,” Cropsey added.
Cropsey cited China’s recent installation of military facilities on its outposts, including the expansion of shoals into artificial islands, in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.
Six months ago, the U.S. TV news network CNBC, reported that China had installed surface-to-air missile systems and anti-ship cruise missiles on three of its outposts in the sea region – Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef – in April or May. CNBC cited sources with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence documents.
The Pentagon declined to comment after the story came out.
Friday’s statement from the U.S. came after secretaries of State and Defense Mike Pompeo and James Mattis held talks with Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. The four met as part of an annual diplomatic and security dialogue, which was originally set for Beijing last month but had been called off amid rising tensions.
“The United States called on China to withdraw its missile systems from disputed features in the Spratly Islands, and reaffirmed that all countries should avoid addressing disputes through coercion or intimidation,” said the statement released on Friday.
Cropsey said Washington could attempt to “punish” Beijing through increased economic and diplomatic pressure. That could include tighter security cooperation with Taiwan and possible increases to naval patrols in the sea, the analyst said.
Taiwan also claims all of the Spratlys, an archipelago of about 100 islets, reefs and atolls. But Beijing claims that Taiwan belongs to China.
It is “very unlikely” that China will heed the U.S. demand, Jeffrey Ordaniel, a research fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, said on Twitter.
“China faced no consequences when it ignored” earlier calls from Washington to halt reclamation in marine features in the Spratly archipelago that are claimed by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, said Ordaniel, whose research institute is a former subsidiary of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another think tank.
There would be “no reason for it to fold now,” he said.
Washington: ‘Not pursuing a Cold War’
Back in February, surveillance photographs published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer showed that China had almost completed transforming seven Philippine-claimed reefs in the Spratlys into military outposts.
After that report came out, Sung Kim, the American Ambassador to the Philippines, told reporters in Manila that Washington would be concerned “anytime a claimant, including China, takes an aggressive unilateral action toward militarization.”
“It seems to suggest that they (China) are moving toward militarization,” he said, as he reiterated the importance of keeping a U.S. naval presence in the region.
During Friday’s dialogue with the Chinese officials, secretaries Mattis and Pompeo emphasized that Washington was “not pursuing a Cold War or containment policy with China.”
“Rather, we want to ensure that China acts responsibly and fairly in support of security and prosperity in each of our two countries,” Pompeo told reporters. He said that despite differences the two nations would still cooperate on a wide range of issues.
A statement from the State Department said China and the U.S. “reaffirmed the importance of improving communication mechanisms to reduce the risk of misunderstanding between the two nations’ militaries.”
“The two sides decided to deepen engagement to advance their shared commitment to the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery,” State said.
The Philippines and the other ASEAN claimant states have been pushing for a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea. In August, China agreed to a draft that would eventually serve as its basis.
Officials said the code would spell out legal parameters of what each claimant state could do in a bid to avoid the territorial disputes from spiraling out of control.
During the joint conference on Friday, politburo member Yang acknowledged that China had “undertaken some constructions on its islands and reefs. Most of them are civilian facilities.”
But the United States, he said, “should stop sending its vessels and military aircraft close to Chinese islands and reefs and stop actions that undermine China’s sovereignty and security interest,” according to a transcript released by the State Department.
Mattis responded that the United States made clear during the meeting that it will “continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
Last month, China expressed anger after the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Decatur traveled within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratlys. Officials described the operation as a threat to China’s sovereignty.
Wei, the Chinese defense minister, reiterated during a post-meeting news conference that China would take any necessary measures to ensure the eventual unification of Taiwan was not threatened.
“In the oath of allegiance to the U.S., there is this sentence saying this is a nation under God, indivisible. So it is the same with Taiwan. It is an inalienable part of China,” he said. “So if this territorial integrity is under threat, we will do it at any cost just like what the U.S. side had in Civil War.”