China has started building artificial islands in the South China Sea at a greater rate than ever to boost its territorial claims in the area, a U.S. Defense Department senior official said Friday.
The official said China had reclaimed 800 hectares (2,000 acres) at five different sites, three-quarters of it since the beginning of 2015, indicating that the speed of reclamation has picked up dramatically.
The disclosure — the first time the Defense Department has revealed the extent of the land-building — came as the Pentagon released its annual report to Congress on the state of China’s military.
At four reclamation sites, the report said, China has moved from reclamation to building; heavy equipment has been delivered. The Pentagon said it was unclear what is to be built, but harbors, communications and surveillance systems, logistics support and at least one airfield are all possible. The excavation work has included deep channels and berthing areas that would allow large ships to reach the outposts.
While the Chinese government has said the building projects are to aimed at improving the living and working conditions of people stationed on the islands, the report said, “most analysts outside China believe that China is attempting to change facts on the ground by improving its defense infrastructure in the South China Sea.”
China claims sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea as well as other land areas within a “nine-dash line” that seems to delineate the entire sea.
Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam as well as Taiwan, which occupies Itu Aba Island in the Spratly Islands, make similar claims over the islands. Some have also reclaimed land. Taiwan has excavated about two hectares at Itu Aba since April 2014.
The South China Sea plays an important commercial role in the region. Its shipping lanes deliver more than 80 percent of the crude oil used by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
With a defense budget that increases about 9.5 percent a year, China continues to modernize its military with an eye to fighting “short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts,” the Pentagon report said.
But in the past year, the communist country has shown an increased tolerance for “regional tension” as it seeks to advance its interests.
Moreover, China is investing in capabilities “designed to defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party — including U.S. — intervention during a crisis or conflict.”
In 2014, China continued to build its arsenal of cruise missiles; short- and medium-range ballistic missiles; high-performance aircraft; integrated air defense; information operations; and amphibious and airborne assault vehicles. In addition, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “is developing and testing new intermediate- and medium-range conventional ballistic missiles, as well as long-range, land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles that extend China’s operational reach.”
The report noted that China has an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching most locations within the continental United States.
In addition, the report said that the PLA considers electronic warfare “as a way to reduce or eliminate U.S. technological advantages, and considers it an integral component of warfare.”
China, it said, considers electronic warfare “a vital fourth dimension to combat that can be key to determining the outcome of war, and should be considered equal to traditional ground, sea and air forces.”
The report said that the U.S. military would continue trying to build a stronger military-to-military relationship with China while encouraging it to be more transparent about its military modernization program: “The Department of Defense approach to China is part of a broader U.S. strategy for the Asia-Pacific region that is focused on building a stable and diversified security order, an open and transparent economic order, and a liberal political order.”