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China's Dredging in Contested Waters Worries US

FILE - U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear III leads the U.S. Pacific Command.
FILE - U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear III leads the U.S. Pacific Command.

China's "fairly massive land reclamation" effort in contested waters of the South China Sea is expanding that nation's influence in the region and raising security concerns, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command told U.S. lawmakers.

South China Sea Territorial Claims
South China Sea Territorial Claims

Admiral Samuel Locklear, addressing members of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, said the Chinese are "showing no slowdown in the pace of their military modernization, particularly in the navy," increasing the country's clout in the South and East China Seas.

China is "doing this in combination with what we have seen to be a fairly massive land reclamation in the Spratly Islands and upgrades to facilities in the Paracel Islands," he said. Both island groups are in the South China Sea.

Locklear said this gives the Chinese the ability to deploy, base and resupply what he calls "lower end" or noncombatant vessels, such as maritime patrol boats, in the region.

"It allows them to exert, basically, greater influence over what is now a contested area," the Navy commander said. Its "expanded land features down there also could eventually lead to the deployment of things, such as long-range radars, military and advanced missile systems, and it might be a platform for them, if they ever wanted to establish an air defense ... zone down there for them to be able to enforce that from," Locklear said.

Southeast Asian nations – including the Philippines and Vietnam, which also have claims on the Spratlys and Paracels – have not formulated an effective response to China’s actions.

Images released Tuesday by the satellite-imaging company DigitalGlobe show Woody and Duncan Islands in the Paracels, east of Vietnam, have expanded significantly. Other images show the speedy Chinese construction of at least seven islands in the Spratly group between Vietnam and the Philippines. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman has indicated the artificial islands will be used for military and civilian purposes.

'Significant friction'

At the same congressional hearing Wednesday, Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth said China’s maritime activities have created "significant friction" with its neighbors.

"We’ve urged China to show restraint and to refrain from further activities that undermine regional trust," Wormuth said. "We also have continued to urge China to clarify the meaning of its ambiguous nine-dash line claim as a starting point as a way of reducing tensions and provide greater transparency to countries in the region."

Last week, President Barack Obama said the United States is concerned that China "is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions." But, the president said he thought China’s growing maritime assertiveness could be solved diplomatically.

US accused of meddling

China has accused Washington of taking sides in the dispute and of interfering in regional affairs, including Beijing’s territorial disagreement with Japan over islands in the East China Sea in order "to salvage its waning influence in the Asia-Pacific" region.

John Blaxland, an Australian National University defense senior fellow, said China is backing up its claims with massive resources and redrawing the South China Sea map.

"It’s inventing islands that are hardly likely to be un-invented. So, this is unprecedented," Blaxland said. "The potential for conflict amongst the scattered Spratly Islands claimants is growing and, there is no question, the stakes are high. But, from China’s perspective, securing its trade routes and its resources, these are vital national interests."

And, he said China is pursuing its ambitions with unmatched determination and U.S. policy must be carefully calibrated.

"Taking sides and supporting an ally over a contested claim in defense of their concerns and in challenging China and its potential positioning of radars and missiles risks sparking a war," he said.

He said China’s claims to the islands are at least as strong as those of the other claimants. He predicted China will push as hard and as far as it can until it hits resistance that will take it to the brink of conflict, but not over.

Blaxland said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must act with resolve and unity if it wants its member states’ claims to be respected. Otherwise, he doubts the dispute will be contained or resolved.