China’s imposition of an air defense zone over the disputed South China Sea in the future would be "destabilizing and provocative," and will be ignored by the United States, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific warned on Thursday.
"With regard to ADIZ, or air defense identification zone, I am concerned about the possibility that China might declare an ADIZ," Adm. Harry Harris told reporters at the Pentagon.
"I would find that to be destabilizing and provocative," he said. "We would ignore it, just as we did with the ADIZ they put in place in the East China Sea."
Harris said concerns about a new Chinese air defense zone over the South China Sea were raised by Secretary of State John Kerry, who urged China not to impose such a measure. Kerry held talks this week with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
"So let’s give China a chance here and see if they’ll opt for a more stabilizing, less tense situation, or whether they’ll opt to be a provocative, destabilizing influence in the region," Harris said.
Defense officials said the recent introduction of advanced HQ-9 air defense missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels, along with the arrival of a small number of J-11 and JH-7 jet fighters, along with the construction of a large radar in the region, have all stoked concerns that China is preparing to declare the air defense zone.
Harris said Chinese military bases in the sea could be removed militarily but that is an option of last resort.
China announced in November 2013 it was unilaterally imposing an air defense zone over the East China Sea and warned that all aircraft there risked being shot down unless they first sought approval from Beijing before entering the zone. That zone includes Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which China claims as its territory and calls the Diaoyu Islands.
In Beijing, a Defense Ministry spokesman did not answer directly on Thursday when asked if China is close to announcing the imposition of a South China Sea ADIZ, after building runways on islands and in response to U.S. naval patrols.
"To establish an air defense identification zone is within the sovereign rights of a country," said Col. Wu Qian. "And whether to establish such a zone and when to establish it depends on the threat that China faces in the air and the level of such kind of threat. And various factors have to be taken into consideration."
Wu also criticized statements by Harris before Congress that China is seeking hegemony in the South China Sea by deploying weapons and equipment on the islands.
"In China, hegemonism is a word reserved for a certain country," he said. "That country is supposed to know well about that."
The colonel also said Harris’ comments were aimed at obtaining more defense funds from Congress. "You have the right to do that, which we do not object, but, it is inappropriate to get more money by carelessly smearing China," Wu said.
Wu said the United States is behind militarization in the South China Sea. "It is very necessary for China to deploy defense facilities on the islands and reefs of the South China Sea," he added.
Harris said he views China’s island building over the past several years in the South China Sea as a scheme to set up military bases and deploy high-tech weapons that will threaten trade and freedom of navigation in the vital strategic waterway.
Following two days of congressional testimony, Adm. Harris spoke to reporters at the Pentagon as part of a world tour that included a stop in Japan and an upcoming visit to India.
The Pacific commander elaborated on his concerns about Chinese military encroachment in Asia and said he is concerned the Chinese military buildup will result in a Beijing takeover of what the United States and other regional states regard as international waters.
A total of $5.3 trillion trade transits the sea, including over $1 trillion in U.S. trade. Also, Chinese control threatens strategic undersea cables used for the Internet and other communications.
"And I think that short of war, for the United States, China will exercise de facto control of the South China Sea if they continue to outfit the bases that they have claimed there," he said.
Harris, the most blunt-spoken commander of U.S. forces in Asia in decades, also said the U.S. military is exercising its international rights by conducting warship passages within 12 miles of disputed islands in the Paracels and Spratlys, where China is building the military facilities.
Two sail-by operations have been conducted so far, one in October and January, prompting harsh responses from Beijing calling the maneuvers a military provocation.
"We’re going to do more, and we’ll do them at some frequency… I think we have to continue to do these operations to exercise our freedom of navigation and airspace in the international space," Harris said. "More is better."
"We must exercise our freedom of navigation or we risk losing it, in my opinion," he added.
Harris would not say if future warship transits would include other nations’ naval vessels, such as those from Japan or Australia.
But the admiral said he would welcome international warships to visit the region because the sea is international territory.
Harris voiced serious concerns about Chinese military activities over the past several years.
"I am of the opinion that they are militarizing the South China Sea," he said. "And when they add their advanced fighters to Woody Island, up the Paracels and when they put their advanced missile systems on the Paracels and when they build three 10,000-foot runways in the Spratlys on bases that they’ve reclaimed, when they do all that they’re changing the operational landscape in the South China Sea. So that’s what’s changed."
Harris said U.S. naval and air patrols over the sea have not really changed, and are part of a regular military presence.
"So I would say it’s China that’s changed it behavior."
The aggressive behavior by China has resulted in closer alliances and security ties between other nations in the region, he noted.
On China’s opposition to the deployment of advanced U.S. air defenses in South Korea, Harris said Beijing’s protests are "preposterous."
"THAAD is not a threat to China," Harris said of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system.
The system, if deployed, would be used to protect the Korean people and American forces in the country from North Korean missile threats.
Harris said if China wanted to exert influence to prevent THAAD from being deployed it could use its leverage against North Korea.
Earlier Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a speech in Washington that THAAD’s powerful X-band radar can reach into China, and thus threatens Chinese national security. He did not elaborate.
China has the world’s largest missile forces, including short-, medium- and long-range missiles.
Wang sought to play down tensions in the region, saying the South China Sea is stable. He defended "some military deployments" in the region as part of a normal development program that included civilian infrastructure such as lighthouses on the islands.
Regarding China’s economic problems, Harris said he does not believe China’s communist leaders are increasing their aggressiveness in the South China Sea to divert attention from internal Chinese domestic problems.
"It’s a possibility, we’re looking out for it, but I don’t see that today," Harris said.
The Pacific commander urged the United States to continue with its Asia rebalancing. As part of that strategy, the Pentagon needs to modernize its forces, maintain combat readiness, and use diplomacy to influence China, he said.