China has expanded construction of manmade islands in the South China Sea to a total of nearly 3,000 acres and is taking steps to militarize the islands for power projection capabilities, according to a Pentagon study made public Friday.
The report, "Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy," is the Obama administration’s first dedicated study of the increasing destabilization of a vital economic waterway that China is claiming as its maritime domain.
"The infrastructure China appears to be building would enable it to establish a more robust power projection presence into the South China Sea," the 40-page report says.
"Its latest land reclamation and construction will also allow it to berth deeper draft ships at outposts; expand its law enforcement and naval presence farther south into the South China Sea; and potentially operate aircraft—possibly as a divert airstrip for carrier-based aircraft—that could enable China to conduct sustained operations with aircraft carriers in the area."
Several groups of islands in the South China Sea are claimed by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. They include the Paracels in the northwestern part and the Spratlys in the southeast.
The South China Sea boasts maritime trade of about $1.2 trillion annually in ship-borne goods bound for the United States.
The report called China’s efforts "destabilizing."
Several months ago the Pentagon stated that China had built 2,000 acres of islands, indicating an additional 900 acres were reclaimed through sea floor dredging since the spring.
At issue are fishing rights and undersea energy resources, including oil and gas deposits, sought by states in the region. China has imposed what it calls the "Nine-Dash Line" covering 90 percent of the sea that Beijing claims as its sovereign territory.
China also is building up its military forces in the region. It has deployed nuclear submarines to the southern province of Hainan and has plans to deploy an aircraft carrier to the region.
"In our bilateral discussions, we continue to express to China our concerns about its behavior in the East and South China Seas, including restricting access to fishing grounds in disputed waters, engaging in provocative energy exploration in other nations’ claimed exclusive economic zones, undertaking dramatic land reclamation activities on disputed features, and unilaterally announcing an ADIZ in the East China Sea," the report said.
"China’s actions are having the effect of increasing uncertainty about its intentions, and this is shrinking space for diplomatic solutions to emerge."
China should clarify its maritime claims and halt island building and militarization, the report said.
China has claimed its island building is benign and asserted earlier this month that the island building has stopped.
Asked about the Beijing statement, David Shear, assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told reporters: "It’s not clear to us that they’ve stopped, or if they’re finishing up, and we will continue to watch that situation."
"Of concern to us also, of course, in addition to reclamation, is the potential for further construction and the militarization of these features, either by China or by the other claimants," he added. "And our position on that is very clear: we called for a permanent halt to all of those activities."
Disclosure of the report comes as President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Washington next month, when the island dispute and Chinese hacking against the United States are expected to be contentious topics.
Shear defended the administration’s limited diplomatic response to the sea dispute, which has focused mainly on issuing statements and protests. Critics say stronger responses to Chinese maritime aggressiveness are needed.
The report includes frequent references to the problem posed by claimants other than China in the islands dispute, in an apparent effort to limit the report’s criticism of China.
Charts and graphics in the report show that China’s military, coast guard, and maritime law enforcement forces are many times greater than those of other states in the region.
It also shows that while other states have built up islands totaling from 10 to 80 acres, their activities have been outpaced by China’s, which have totaled around 2,900 acres.
"We have engaged China repeatedly at the highest levels, urging the Chinese and other claimants to implement a permanent halt to reclamation, construction, and militarization of those features," Shear said.
"We of course have a very strong and persistent military presence in the region, designed to maintain peace and stability, as well as to support our diplomatic efforts on the South China Sea."
The report says that at all the new island sites "China either has transitioned from land reclamation operations to infrastructure development, or has staged construction support for infrastructure development."
China has stated that its island outposts "will have a military component to them, and will also be used for maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine scientific research, meteorological observation, ecological environment conservation, navigation safety, and fishery production."
Additionally, China is using the islands to allow its maritime law enforcement vessels to conduct longer deployments.
"Potentially higher-end military upgrades on these features would be a further destabilizing step," the report said.
Satellite photos published by private think tanks in recent months have shown military equipment on some of the islands, including artillery.
"By undertaking these actions, China is unilaterally altering the physical status quo in the region, thereby complicating diplomatic initiatives that could lower tensions," the report said.
The maritime disputes also extend eastward to the East China Sea, where China has clashed with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, which Tokyo has governed for decades.
The report said the Pentagon is bolstering military forces in the region to deter conflict and coercion and "respond decisively when needed."
Other steps include closer cooperation with allies and partners in the region and "military diplomacy" aimed at lowering tensions.
Shear declined to specify what steps were being taken.
However, the report outlined several steps, including sending a new aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, to replace the U.S.S. George Washington.
A new amphibious assault ship, the U.S.S. America will be sent in the next five years, and two more Aegis destroyers are being sent to Japan.
More powerful aircraft, including F-22s, temporary deployments of B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers, V-22 tilt rotor aircraft for the Marine Corps and Special Forces, and F-35s also will be deployed in the region.
New and updated sea and air-launched missiles are planned for the region, along with more powerful long-range precision strike weapons, including the new extended-range Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM-ER), and a new long-range antiship cruise missile.
For surveillance, 47 P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which are equipped with torpedoes, will be purchased in the coming years, along with long-range drones.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday that Chinese claims would not change U.S. military operations in and around the South China Sea.
"The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits," Carter said. "As we’ve always the right to do, we will continue to do that, and none of this is going to change our conduct in anyway."
Shear said military activities in the South China Sea included "presence operations" involving ship transits and aircraft flights, including training flights for B-52 bombers.
"We are in the South China Sea on a regular basis," he said. "We are looking at ways of further supporting our diplomatic efforts, including military activities, but I’m not going to get into the details of what we’re going to do in the future."
Carter said the U.S. government has called on all states to stop dredging and militarization and noted that "China is by far and away the one that has done the most, especially in the last year."
"And so that’s our view. It’s a very serious situation the Chinese have created there, and that’s our reaction to it," Carter said.