World

South China Sea: US mulls sending planes, ships near disputed islands

Washington: The Pentagon is considering sending US military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around rapidly growing Chinese-made artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, a US official said on Tuesday.

A Japanese Navy ship (right) along with a Philippine Navy vessel take part in a joint exercise less than 300 kilometres ...
A Japanese Navy ship (right) along with a Philippine Navy vessel take part in a joint exercise less than 300 kilometres from a Philippine-claimed shoal, under Chinese control, in the South China Sea.  Photo: AFP

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter requested options that included sending US military ships and aircraft within 22 kilometres of reefs that China had been building up in the disputed Spratly Islands, the official said.

Such a move would directly challenge Chinese efforts to expand its influence in the disputed region by literally adding territory through a massive island-building exercise.

Philippine military chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang points to a map of islands in the Spratly group during a visit ...
Philippine military chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang points to a map of islands in the Spratly group during a visit to Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys in the South China Sea. Photo: AP

"We are considering how to demonstrate freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade," the US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that any options would need to be approved by the White House.

The Pentagon and White House did not immediately comment.

Chinese embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said China had "indisputable sovereignty" over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters, referring to the Spratlys by their Chinese name.

He said China's construction work was "reasonable, justified and lawful".

Reclamation work by China on Mischief Reef in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea.
Reclamation work by China on Mischief Reef in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

He said China hoped "relevant parties" – an apparent reference to the United States and others – would honour commitments not to take sides in South China Sea disputes "and refrain from playing up tensions".

The practice of sending ships and aircraft near the islands would be in line with regular US military "freedom of navigation" operations, which it conducted last year to challenge the maritime claims of 19 countries, including China.

Filipino soldiers on the Sierra Madre, a rusting hulk anchored near Ayungin shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratly ...
Filipino soldiers on the Sierra Madre, a rusting hulk anchored near Ayungin shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

China drew condemnation from Japan and the US in 2013 when it imposed an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea. Aircraft are supposed to identify themselves to Chinese authorities.

The US responded by flying B-52 bombers through the zone in a show of force.

A Filipino soldier patrols the shore of Pag-asa Island in the Spratly chain on Monday.
A Filipino soldier patrols the shore of Pag-asa Island in the Spratly chain on Monday. Photo: AP

Five countries as well as China lay claim to parts of the Spratly archipelago. They are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. However, China claims nearly 90 per cent of the entire South China Sea, a vital shipping route through which $US5 trillion of trade passes every year.

Worries about the stability of the South China Sea extend through Asia.

The Philippines and Japan held their first joint naval exercises in the South China Sea on Tuesday, while Japan's coastguard works with Vietnam this week, as Tokyo boosts maritime ties with two nations at odds with Beijing over the disputed waterway.

Japan's cooperation follows a speech last year by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowing to help Southeast Asia maintain freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

In Washington on Tuesday, Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said his country, a US treaty ally, believed urgent action was needed.

"We are taking the position that we must do something quickly, less the massive reclamation results in the de facto control by China of the South China Sea," he said at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Reclamation involves adding to islands or creating new ones by dredging earth and sand from the ocean floor.

He said he was in Washington "to see what more the US and Philippines partnership can undertake" to stop China "taking as much of the South China Sea as possible".

Satellite images have shown that since about March 2014, China has conducted reclamation work at seven sites in the Spratlys and is constructing a military-sized air strip on one artificial island and possibly a second on another.

Other images have suggested China is working to extend another airstrip to military length in the Paracel Islands further north.

Reuters reported last week China had added about 2000 acres of land in the South China Sea since the start of 2014, according to one US estimate.

In April, the US military commander for Asia, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said China could eventually deploy radar and missile systems on the outposts that could be used to enforce an exclusion zone should it move to declare one.

Last month, Reuters reported that Japan's military was considering joining the US in maritime air patrols in the South China Sea in response to China's increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims.

A US military source said a decision to begin such flights could prompt Tokyo to ask the Philippines for access to air bases, something that would allow aircraft to patrol longer. 

Reuters

Follow FairfaxForeign on Twitter