The top U.S. military commander in the Pacific is warning China is bent on achieving “hegemony in East Asia,” as Beijing’s top diplomat held talks in Washington with Secretary of State John F. Kerry amid rising tensions over who controls the vital South China Sea.
Navy Adm. Harry Harris Jr. issued a bracing warning about China’s increasing assertiveness during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, hours before a report that Chinese fighter jets had been deployed to a disputed Island in the South China Sea — the latest in a series of provocative moves by Beijing to bolster its sovereignty claims against its regional rivals.
U.S. officials confirmed the report on Thursday evening, but cautioned against reading too much into the development because Beijing has been known to send fighter jets on such missions over the years. After meeting with Mr. Kerry on Tuesday afternoon, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters at the State Department that Beijing’s military moves have been justified by provocative military actions by others in the region.
“Every day,” Mr. Wang said, “advanced armaments and equipment [are] emerging in the South China Sea, including the strategic bombers, the missile destroyers. Why [have] people chosen to disregard or ignore them?”
Faced with competing claims from Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others, China has been building up and “militarizing” its possessions in the South China Sea, Adm. Harris said. “You have to believe in a flat earth to think otherwise.”
While he did not explicitly name the U.S., Mr. Wang suggested that it is among those guilty of engaging in increased military activity in the South China Sea.
“It’s important to notice that in recent decades some countries have illegally occupied China’s reefs and atolls and have engaged in large-scale military constructions not only of radars, but also of missiles and all kinds of cannons and artilleries,” he said.
The two diplomats appeared to make progress on another front, emerging from private talks Tuesday afternoon saying they had made progress on a U.N. resolution aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear programs. Beijing, the North’s main ally and economic lifeline, resisted past efforts by the U.S. and its allies to crack down too hard on Pyongyang.
The South China Sea dispute was clearly a hot topic on Capitol Hill and in the Wang-Kerry discussions.
Beijing’s recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles, its installation of radar facilities and its construction of airstrips on territorially disputed islands are flat-out changing “the operational landscape in the South China Sea,” Adm. Harris said.
His testimony added bite to Mr. Kerry’s own assertion, during a separate hearing Tuesday morning, that the Chinese muscle-flexing has only added to already seething friction over the overlapping claims to control large parts of the South China Sea. Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.
While most analysts say the latest developments are unlikely to trigger a direct military confrontation, unease has spread in Washington since last week, when reports emerged that the Chinese military had deployed anti-aircraft missiles on the Paracels Islands chain.
On Monday, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that China has also built radar facilities in the Spratly Islands, another disputed chain. On Tuesday, there were reports that Beijing has now sent J-11 and Xian JH-7 fighter jets to the Paracels.
Citing “two U.S. officials” who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Fox News reported that U.S. intelligence had spotted the fighter jets on Woody Island, which has effectively been under Chinese control for more than 40 years but is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
China took an unusually combative tone ahead of Mr. Wang’s meeting with Mr. Kerry on Tuesday, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry asserting that Beijing’s actions were no different from Washington’s positioning of military assets on Hawaii.
A ministry spokeswoman went so far as to warn U.S. officials not to try to exploit the issue as a “pretext to make a fuss” while Mr. Wang is in Washington this week.
But the Obama administration has already raised the stakes in recent months by sending guided missile destroyers USS Lassen and USS Curtis Wilbur close to disputed areas occupied by Beijing, in an assertion of what U.S. officials said was the right of transit through international waterways.
The Pentagon also has conducted sea and air patrols near artificial islands China has built in the Spratlys, including by two B-52 strategic bombers in November.
Some argue that the administration’s approach may be ineffective because Beijing is engaged in a long-game strategy of patience known as “salami-slicing” — effectively carrying out a stream of small actions over time that will eventually amount to a major reorganization of the region’s military landscape.
Robert Haddick, a former editor of the Small Wars Journal and a contractor for U.S. Special Operations Command, wrote in a 2012 analysis for Foreign Policy magazine that U.S. policymakers and military planners should be wary of China’s incremental moves toward dominance.
Beijing’s approach “could confound Washington’s military plans” to contain overt Chinese aggression by growing the U.S. defense footprint in the region, he wrote.
Adm. Harris said Tuesday that China’s recent actions present a “strategic opportunity” for the U.S. to beef up its alliances with nations on China’s periphery, including the Philippines and Vietnam, whose leaders have increasingly called on Washington to take a more aggressive posture.
President Obama is slated to make a state visit to Vietnam in May, and Adm. Harris suggested that the White House may be keen to open the floodgates of U.S. weapons sales to Hanoi as a message to Beijing.
In 2014, the administration announced the partial lifting of the U.S. ban on weapons sales to Vietnam, some 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War.
But some restrictions were left in place. Administration officials have said only the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities would be allowed and, to date, no weapons sales to Vietnam have been reported.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican and a Vietnam veteran, has long pushed for reconciliation between Washington and Hanoi and raised the weapons issue with Adm. Harris during Tuesday’s hearing.
“I believe that we should improve our relationship with Vietnam,” Adm. Harris responded. “I think it’s a great strategic opportunity for us, and I think the Vietnamese people would welcome the opportunity to work closer with us as their security partner of choice.”
North Korea factor
The latest wave of friction over the South China Sea has come against a backdrop of disagreement between Washington and Beijing on another front: North Korea.
Mr. Kerry and other Obama administration officials have voiced rising frustration that Beijing has failed to come through on its promise to help rein in North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
But Mr. Wang and Mr. Kerry hinted that progress had been made Tuesday on the language for a U.N. resolution on North Korea that Mr. Kerry said would go beyond diplomatic moves.
“Important progress has been made in the consultations, and we are looking at the possibility of reaching agreement on the draft resolution and passing it in the near future,” the Chinese foreign minister told reporters. “Once we pass that agreement, we can effectively limit further progress of the DPRK’s nuclear missile program.”
Added Mr. Kerry, “It has been very constructive in the last days, and there is no question that if the resolution is approved, it will go beyond anything that we have previously passed.”
The Obama administration has called for a ramping-up of economic sanctions to punish Pyongyang for its early-January test of a nuclear weapon.
A draft U.N. resolution prepared by Japan, South Korea and the U.S. has been in negotiation since last month.