WASHINGTON — China is on its way to securing "de facto" control of the South China Sea, a top US admiral warned on Thursday, amid growing unease over Beijing's continued military build up in the contested waterway.
By building air bases and hardened bunkers on tiny islands, some of which are reclaimed from the sea, and by installing sophisticated radar and missile defence systems, China has shown it is determined to achieve military primacy in the region, Admiral Harry Harris said.
Beijing's claims to almost all of the South China Sea are widely disputed and the body of water has long been viewed as a potential flashpoint.
"If China continues to arm all of the bases they have reclaimed in the South China Sea, they will change the operational landscape in the region," Harris told Pentagon reporters.
"Short of war with the United States, China will exercise de facto control of the South China Sea."
Harris, who heads up the US Pacific Command, visited the Pentagon after several hearings in Washington at which he warned lawmakers about the pace of China's maritime militarisation.
"Harris is raising alarm about what could happen if there's not sufficient push back, that's what he's trying to provoke here, a more robust response from the region and outside the region," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior Asia advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The US cannot do this alone."
China is using dredgers to turn reefs and low-lying features into larger land masses for runways and other military uses to bolster its claims of sovereignty in the region.
Satellite imagery released this week shows Beijing is installing radar gear, and China has also deployed surface-to-air missiles and lengthened a runway to accommodate fighter jets on one islet, Woody Island, in the Paracels.
Beijing appears to be preparing what is known as an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire South China Sea, through which it can militarily query any vessel or aircraft.
"I am concerned about the possibility that China might declare an ADIZ," Harris said.
"I'm concerned about it from the sense that I would find that to be destabilising and provocative."
Still, he noted, the United States would ignore any such designation.
Freedom of navigation
General Joe Dunford, who is the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and America's top officer, earlier on Thursday told lawmakers that he worried China wants to hamper the United States as it operates in the region.
"It's very clear to me that those capabilities that are being developed are intended to limit our ability to move into the Pacific or to operate freely within the Pacific, and we call that anti-access, aerial-denial capabilities," Dunford told the US House Appropriations Committee.
"We need to, and we must, continue to exercise our rights of freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace," Harris said, adding that "like-minded" nations should do the same.
Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said China's military presence in the South China Sea was increasing the risk of "miscalculation or conflict" between regional countries.
"Chinese behaviour is having the effect of self-isolation, and it's also galvanising others to take action against it," he told the House Appropriations Committee.
Carter said other nations in the region are responding by stepping up their own maritime defence activities and aligning themselves with the United States.
"Old allies, like Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines, and then new partners, like Viet Nam and India, that are working with us increasingly," he said.
The South China Sea is a vital waterway through which trillions of dollars of cargo flow each year, much of it destined for the United States. -- AFP
All eyes on Syria as cease-fire deadline looms
BEIRUT – US President Barack Obama warned Russia and Damacus that the "world will be watching", hours before a partial truce was due to come into force in war-torn Syria on Saturday.
Obama said "the coming days will be critical" for the cease-fire brokered by Moscow and Washington, and agreed to by both President Bashar al-Assad's regime and Syria's top opposition grouping.
The deal – which excludes the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group and other extremists – marks the biggest diplomatic push yet to help end Syria's violence, but it has been plagued by doubts after the failure of previous peace efforts.
Members of the 17-nation group backing Syria's peace process are to meet in Geneva on Friday to work out further details of the agreement.
It is then expected to be endorsed by the UN Security Council, also on Friday, diplomats said.
There are hopes a successful cease-fire will lead to the resumption of peace talks that collapsed in Geneva earlier this month.
"Tomorrow is going to be a very important, I will say a crucial day," the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters at the UN's European headquarters in Geneva.
The agreement allows military action to continue against IS, which seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, as well as against the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist groups.
Obama said he was "certain" those groups would continue to fight, but stressed that the US-led coalition was winning the war against IS, citing territorial gains.
Obama said he was not "under any illusions" about possible pitfalls, but said the cease-fire could be a "potential step in bringing about an end to the chaos."
"A lot of that is going to depend on whether the Syrian government, Russia, and their allies live up to their commitments," Obama said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to do "whatever is necessary" to ensure the cease-fire is implemented.
Russia and the United States are on opposing sides of the conflict, with Moscow backing Assad and Washington supporting the opposition, but the two powers have been making a concerted push for the cease-fire to be respected.
Obama reiterated his view on Thursday that Assad should step down if a lasting peace is to be found.
'High hopes' for aid
The United Nations has managed to boost aid ahead of the cease-fire deadline and expressed optimism on Thursday of more deliveries.
Jan Egeland, a special advisor to De Mistura, said that more than 180 trucks filled with aid had reached six areas under siege from different sides in the past two weeks.
They have brought assistance to just under a quarter of the 480,000 people estimated to be living in 17 besieged places across Syria.
Egeland said permission had been requested to bring aid to besieged parts of Aleppo, Homs and Eastern Ghouta, all hotspots in the country's conflict.
"We have high hopes that we will be able to get through to these places," he said. — AFP