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Artillery outposts in Spratlys alarm region

CANBERRA—US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter alarmed Asia-Pacific security officials on May 29 with the disclosure that China has installed two large artillery vehicles on one of the artificial islands that it is building in the South China Sea. It raised concerns that China may try to use its land reclamation projects for military purposes.

The revelation came as Carter began an 11-day trip to the Asia-Pacific. Speaking the next day at the international security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore, Carter revealed the discovery made by the United States several weeks ago. According to Pentagon spokesperson Brent Colburn, America was aware of the artillery, but he declined to provide details, saying it was an intelligence matter. Defense officials described the weapons as “self-propelled artillery vehicles,” adding that these posed no threat to the United States or its territories. US officials have been watching the rapidly expanding land reclamation by China, reported to now total more than 2,000 acres in the South China Sea.

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US and other regional officials have expressed concern about the island-building—that it may be a prelude to navigation restrictions or the enforcement of a possible air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. China has declared such a zone over disputed Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea.

America has been flying surveillance aircraft in the region, prompting China to file a formal protest after a US Navy P-8A Poseidon recently flew over one of the sites. Carter on Wednesday made it clear that the United States will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” but so far he has said little about what it is willing to do to get China to stop the island construction.

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Asked about the latest imagery suggesting that China had put weapons on one of the reclaimed islands in the Spratlys, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was “not aware of the situation you mention, but China has clearly reiterated its position several times on the islands in the South China Sea.” Responding to Carter’s criticism, she said the United States should be “rational and calm, and stop making any provocative remarks, because such remarks not only do not help ease the controversies in the South China Sea, but they also will aggravate the regional peace and stability.”

Carter has been vocal about US opposition to Chinese land reclamation. He flew over the crowded Strait of Malacca, in part to emphasize the need for continued freedom of navigation in the region. The busy waterway is “a very striking example of the link between security and prosperity and the importance of having security and stability in the Pacific,” a Pentagon official in the Carter survey observed. The waterway is 550 miles long but just 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point. About a third of global shipping—or about 50,000 ships a year—moves through it. “Any accidental or deliberate blockage of the strait would force ships to switch to longer and more expensive routes,” said the official.

Carter told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China’s actions in the area were “out of step” with international rules. China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, resulting in overlapping claims with its neighbors. Other countries have accused China of illegally taking land to make artificial islands with facilities that could potentially be for military use. Carter said he wanted the “peaceful resolution of all disputes,” and to that end, “there should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants.” He acknowledged that other claimants, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, had reclaimed pockets of land or built outposts in the area, but “one country has gone much faster than any other.”

China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined, and more than in the history of the region. And China did so in only the last 18 months.

“It is unclear how much farther China will go,” Carter said. “That is why this stretch of water has become the source of tension in the region and front-page news around the world. The United States will maintain a substantial presence in the region.” His statements were reported as some of the toughest on China’s island-building strategy that have come from a senior US official.

The key question is what the United States will actually do about it. It has been pointed out that recent overflights by US maritime patrol aircraft have been met by terse radio traffic, with the Chinese demanding that they leave the area. “The fear is that this kind of activity might lead to some kind of incident in the air or at sea that may only further inflame tensions between Washington and Beijing,” BBC said in a commentary.

It added: “China takes the view that it is doing nothing wrong—and certainly nothing that other countries are doing. However, it is clearly the pace and scale of what China is doing that worries many.”

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At the Singapore security summit, Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh, told Reuters that China’s reported installation of mobile artillery weapons on a reclaimed island in the South China Sea was “a very worrying development.” He said that according to US satellite images, the artillery could pose a threat to nearby Vietnamese bases, also on disputed territory.

He cited US images showing that China had added some 2,000 acres to five outposts in the Spratlys, including 1,500 acres this year.

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TAGS: Ashton Carter, Reclamation, Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, South China Sea, spratlys, West Philippine Sea
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