Artificial Islands Ratchet Up China Tensions, U.S. Admiral Says

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 U.S. 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 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 host 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 U.S. navy dominance in the Pacific. The tensions risk overshadowing trade and investment ties with Southeast Asia.

The U.S. urged all claimants to comply with the 2002 Declaration of Conduct between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 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.

‘Necessary Construction’

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier this month said that his country “is carrying out necessary construction on its own islands, and that isn’t directed against and won’t affect anyone.”

“We are not comparable to some countries that like to build illegal houses on others’ territory,” he said.

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 U.S. ally’s sea-surface military fleet.

Earlier 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 percent more for domestic-built vessels over U.S. benchmarks due to inefficiencies in the industry, Andrews said.

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