Director of the National Intelligence James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 9, 2016.
Director of the National Intelligence James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 9, 2016.

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper has told a Senate committee that he expects China to continue building on artificial islands to sustain its "exorbitant" territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.

Addressing the Senate Intelligence Committee's worldwide threats hearing Tuesday, the top U.S. intelligence official implied that China is militarizing those land features, despite an assurance by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to Washington last year that China did not intend to do so.

“Apparently President Xi may have a different definition than we do ... [putting] in runways, hangars and ... installing radars, doing port calls with Chinese navy, and Chinese coast guard ships," Clapper said. “I think it’s very clear they will try to exert as much as possessiveness, if you will, over this area and South China Sea in general.”

‘Expansive territorial claims’

Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said China has now reclaimed 1,300 hectares of land in the Spratly Island chain, where Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim territory.

“China continues its rapid military modernization while taking coercive actions to assert expansive territorial claims," he said. "At the time of this hearing last year, China had reclaimed a total of 400 acres [160 hectares] in the Spratly Islands. Today that figure is a staggering 3,200 acres [1,300 hectares] with extensive infrastructural construction under way or already completed.”

FILE - This aerial photo taken through a glass win
FILE - This aerial photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 11, 2015.

China claims 80 percent of the waters and islands of the South China Sea and has been involved in island reclamation projects in recent years.

The United States recently carried out several “freedom of navigation" activities in the region, triggering Chinese protests.

Clapper said U.S. allies in the region fully understand and support American policy on this issue.

“I think they welcome our freedom of navigation operations," said the top U.S. spy. "I think they are a bit reticent about speaking publicly as supportively as they do in private.”

Clapper also said China prioritized the deployment of regional ballistic and cruise missiles to expand its conventional strike capability against U.S. forces and bases throughout the region.

“They continue to field an anti-ship ballistic missile, which provides the capability to attack U.S. aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific Ocean," Clapper said. "China also displayed a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, capable of striking Guam, during its September 2015 military parade in Beijing.”

Pentagon's China, Russia focus

Pentagon officials on Tuesday said after years of fighting terrorism, they are shifting focus to dealing with near-peer competitors such as Russia and China, and that that intention is reflected in the fiscal 2017 defense budget.

At a press conference at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said the U.S. military must focus more on building the capacity, capability and readiness to deal with the ever-more aggressive Russia and China.

FILE - U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (R) sp
FILE - U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (R) speaks with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Robert C. Francis Jr on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.

The new budget calls for $582.7 billion for the nation’s defense, which is roughly the same as the current spending level.

Work also said the U.S. simply can’t sustain its deterrence by outspending competitors and called for investing more in new technology to offset the competitors’ advantages in military power.

General Paul Selva, a deputy chief of staff, said all branches of the armed forces are pursuing high-end combat capabilities to meet growing challenges from Russia and China.

China denies its military modernization has any aggressive intentions, and accused the United States of using China's military threat as an excuse for continuous military development.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin service.