There are no indications Beijing will scale back its military arsenal on islands it has built in the South China Sea, despite objections from countries that see the disputed waterway as vital to international shipping, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander told reporters in Bangkok on Friday.
Over the past decade China has established bases on those islands and equipped them with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems as well as radar jamming equipment, in defiance of international law, Adm. John C. Aquilino said. Recently, Chinese bombers landed on runways constructed on the artificial isles.
“I see no signs of China reducing its military might in the region,” he said. “What I would hope is that China would operate in accordance with international law and enable the free and open Indo-Pacific that exists today to continue, and try not to constrain it.”
“Despite what is said by the Chinese Communist Party, it is clear to me that those islands are built for one purpose – that is to militarize the region,” he said in response to questions from reporters. “So when we talk about what is said and what is done, it is important to look to deeds and not listen to words.”
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, a vital waterway for international shipping and trade, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have their own overlapping claims to portions of the disputed waters.
Earlier this year, the U.S. joined the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in conducting their first combined naval exercise in the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea. Senior U.S. Navy officers stressed that the exercises were part of efforts to foster closer maritime security ties with the ASEAN countries in keeping waters in the Indo-Pacific region open and free.
“It is important for the United States to operate in the region and for the past 80 years the United States, with its presence, has enabled peace and prosperity for all nations – so that is the importance of why we are here and why we will remain here,” he said.
Competition, not conflict
There is a competition between the two superpowers, said Aquilino, who came to Bangkok, at the invitation of Thai Navy commander Adm. Luechai Ruddit, to attend a royal barge procession on Thursday marking the final rite in the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X).
“I said we were in competition in China but that does not mean conflict,” he said. “Our ships operate in close proximity with Chinese ships and all nations’ ships in the region and we want to keep those interactions safe. Those are the things we do to prevent conflict.”
The U.S. Navy has been sailing through the South China Sea in a show of force in the face of Chinese activities and to uphold the international principle of freedom of navigation.
Aquilino said the competition stemmed from the two nations’ disagreement over ideologies.
“When the United States talks about values that like-minded nations share with regard to, again, freedom to choose government and equal rights, we will continue to work with our partners to share those same values,” the admiral said. “And I believe that the strength of partnerships with those values will be what keeps the nations in the region secured.”
He said the United States had support from many nations throughout the region who want prosperity, freedom of navigation and access to global resources. The South China Sea is rich with mineral resources.
“All the nations in the region understand the importance, number one of the region for prosperity and security for all the nations, and number two that access to those area are critical to all the nations. That’s why I think you are seeing and will continue to see many nations speak out against some of the policies that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to implement.”