The head of U.S. Pacific Command said Tuesday that China was militarizing the South China Sea despite its pledge not to do so.
"China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea, and you’d have to believe in flat Earth to think otherwise," Admiral Harry Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Speaking ahead of the meeting in Washington between China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Harris said China was escalating the situation in the South China Sea with new deployments. Asked about Beijing's goals, he said: "I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia."
Harris' concerns were backed up by a report released by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies that said China was building a radar system throughout the disputed islands.
The group's Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative released satellite imagery that shows a high-frequency radar system on Cuarteron reef in the Spratly Islands, as well as a lighthouse, a helicopter landing pad, an underground bunker and other communications equipment.
The report said the radar facilities on Cuarteron would "significantly bolster China's ability to monitor surface and air traffic" in the northern part of the South China Sea.
CSIS also said China appeared to be installing radar facilities at smaller reefs in the Spratlys.
At a joint news conference with Wang, Kerry said steps by China, Vietnam and others had escalated the tension in the region.
"Regrettably, there are missiles, fighter aircraft, guns, artillery and other things that have been placed in the South China Sea, and this is of great concern to everyone who transits and relies on the South China Sea for peaceful trade, commerce and use," Kerry said.
Beijing has launched a massive effort to assert its claims over a string of islands in the South China Sea through new construction and island-building, ignoring competing claims by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
China has deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system on Woody Island, which is part of the region's Paracel island chain and is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel group last month. U.S. defense officials said the mission was conducted under "freedom of navigation," which gives every nation the right to sail through crucial international navigation lanes.
Beijing denounced the U.S. action as a provocation and vowed there would be consequences.