CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii — The top admiral in charge of U.S. military operations in Asia lambasted China this week, accusing Chinese leaders of actively fomenting instability in the South and East China seas instead of using their expanding economic and military power to create sustainable security in the region.
“China is a regional leader and could be the largest economy in the world very soon,” said Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, who heads the Pentagon’s U.S. Pacific Command.
“They have a responsibility to lead on creating security in the region,” he said. “Quite frankly, my view is they’ve done the opposite of that in recent years.”
Adm. Locklear said overall U.S.-China relations remain about “80 percent” positive. But with the Obama administration’s self-described “rebalance” of U.S. foreign policy interests as a backdrop, his critical comments on China’s role as an agitator in the region signal ongoing — and potentially mounting — U.S. military frustration with Beijing.
The admiral’s remarks come just a week after the Pentagon accused a Chinese fighter jet of conducting a “dangerous intercept” of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon plane off China’s southern coastline.
The Aug. 19 incident, which saw the Chinese fighter fly within 30 feet of the Poseidon triggered fresh concern in Washington that Beijing may again be flirting with tactics that prompted a meltdown U.S-China military relations in 2001 — when a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. spy plane.
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Adm. Locklear made no specific mention of that or the more recent fighter jet incidents during a roundtable discussion with international reporters organized by the Hawaii-based East-West Center on Thursday.
Instead, he homed in on other actions being taken by Beijing, including the deployment in May of a Chinese oil rig into waters near the disputed Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam.
“If you look at the last year in the South China Sea, there has been a significant attempt by the Chinese to change the status-quo in their favor,” he said. “Moving an oil rig into contested waters without first having a dialogue with Vietnam about the move is not what a leader would do.”
While China withdrew the oil rig amid outcry from Vietnam in July — reportedly after finding signs of oil and gas reserves beneath the seabed in the area — Adm. Locklear said the incident fit within a recent trend Chinese antagonism and muscle-flexing toward its smaller neighbors.
He alluded to Beijing’s announcement late last year that the Chinese military was unilaterally establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large swath of the East China Sea, specifically around a chain of islands long at the center of a territorial dispute between China and close U.S.-ally Japan.
Following a harsh U.S. reaction to the development last November, Beijing argued that Washington was meddling unfairly in East Asian affairs and that U.S. and Japanese leaders were overreacting to China’s rightful and reasonable expression of power in the region.
An editorial at the time in China Daily, a state-supported newspaper known to closely track Beijing’s official positions, said “Japanese and U.S. hysteria is unnecessary and potentially dangerous, because it is based on a serious misreading, if not intentional distortion, of Chinese strategic purposes.”
On Thursday, Adm. Locklear provided no concrete prescription for how China might be able to provide regional security leadership without inflaming tensions with neighbors like Japan and Vietnam. But he said a key first step would be for Beijing to embrace a more “transparent” posture with its neighbors.
Without more transparency, he said, Washington is watching warily as Beijing appears bent on “establishing local laws over large expanses of disputed territory in order to give the Chinese control over fishing supplies and resources on the seabed.”
Regional tensions, Adm. Locklear said, are stoked by such moves, as well as by Beijing’s “lack of desire to go forward with international law forums,” which the Obama administration has spent the past six years attempting promoting as a way to formally and peacefully defuse the potential for a military clash between China and others in the region.
“What we ask [the Chinese] to do is to be more transparent, to seek international law forums and participate more openly in them,” Adm. Locklear said. “They may have a good argument behind any given action they’re taking, but they must put those arguments toward international bodies and be more transparent about what actions they’re taking and why.”
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry presented a formal proposal to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for China and other members of the association, including Vietnam and Japan, to voluntarily halt provocative actions over disputed island’s in the region.
Chinese officials responded by claiming that they were already committed to working with ASEAN on regional conflict resolution, and suggested that Washington has been attempting to intervene in order to sowing discord among nations in the region.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who met with Mr. Kerry on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Myanmar on Aug. 9, said “countries out of the region can reasonably voice their concern, but we disagree with them for coming to the region finger-pointing.”
“I could not understand why some countries out of the region stayed restless to propagate its tense situation,” Mr. Wang said, according to a story published by China’s official Xinhua News Agency on Aug. 11. “Is it they want to confuse the region?”