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Air Force Secretary: China Pursuing ‘Militarization’ in South China Sea

More freedom of navigation operations possible, but Obama admin wants diplomatic fix

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James / AP
• September 8, 2016 7:22 am

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Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Wednesday that China was pursuing "militarization" in the South China Sea, and that the U.S. military could conduct more air and sea operations to deter Beijing’s actions.

Speaking to reporters at a briefing Wednesday on her recent travels to the Asia-Pacific region, James attributed China’s territorial claims and island building in the South China Sea to Beijing’s desire to "extend their reach" as a global power.

"We have assessed that there is militarization going on in some of these islands—not all, but some. There are air strips on some of the islands. There are command-and-control towers on some of the islands," James explained when asked to comment on China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. "There is nothing else you can read into that than that is a militarization to project power to do something. And what might that something be? You can only speculate."

James called China’s actions "worrisome" but underscored the Obama administration’s desire to resolve the situation through diplomatic channels. Such efforts have thus far fallen short of deterring Beijing’s movements in the South China Sea.

China has continued its island-building campaign—including the deployment of fighter jets and missiles to some disputed territories—despite being warned by Defense Secretary Ash Carter in March against pursuing "militarization" in the South China Sea.

Maj. Gen. Scott Vander Hamm, the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff, said at the briefing Wednesday that the United States has seen roughly 4,000 acres’ worth of dredging and island building by the Chinese in the sea, as well as similar actions that have been undertaken by other regional nations to a much lesser extent. He said the behavior fuels both military and economic concerns.

"That ‘pushing out’ is something that we are watching really closely," Vander Hamm said.

James said that the United States could conduct more air and naval operations to exercise its right to freely navigate in the region. She emphasized that the Air Force has "periodically exercised our right to freedom of navigation in the air." The Air Force deployed three types of bombers to its base on Guam in August to bolster U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. Navy has also periodically sailed warships near China’s manmade islands in the South China Sea, drawing ire from Beijing.

"More operations are certainly a possibility," James said.

China has refused to abide by the ruling of an international tribunal that dismissed its territorial claims in the South China Sea. James said that, during her recent travels, officials from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other nations uniformly expressed the need for China to abide by the ruling issued in July by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands.

"The Hague ruling is legally binding and China should abide by it," James emphasized.

The Air Force secretary insisted that territorial disputes in the South China Sea are getting the "highest level of attention" in the Obama administration.

"This is getting the highest level of attention in government, from the president on down. It’s being worked upon," James said. "We want a good and balanced relationship with China, but we want China to respect the rule of law and freedom of navigation."

"We want to resolve this in a peaceful way," she added.

As the United States has broached cooperation with China in some areas, Beijing has continued aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. During the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou earlier this week, ahead of which President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping formally adopted the Paris climate pact, at least eight new Chinese ships were spotted near the disputed Scarborough Shoal by the Philippines.

The incident led the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs to reach out to China demanding an explanation.

"The presence of so many ships, other than coast guard in the area is cause for grave concern," Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Sunday. "If they try to construct anything in Scarborough it will have far reaching adverse effects on the security situation."

Published under: China