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U.S. Pacific commander goes public: China violated pledge not to militarize disputed islands

U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John C. Aquilino, left, on board a P-8A Poseidon plane during the reconnaissance mission.
FPI / April 1, 2022

The commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is speaking out on the growing threat posed by China.

Adm. John C. Aquilino criticized Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping for what U.S. officials say is Xi’s failure to follow through on a 2015 pledge to the United States not to militarize reclaimed disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Aquilino said, despite the promise, China’s military has placed fighter jets, anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and laser and electronic jamming gear on at least three of the disputed islands. The weapons and equipment potentially threaten all nations operating in the international waterway.

“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,” Aquilino told The Associated Press during a flight aboard a P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems. So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so concerning for the militarization of these islands.”

As the P-8A Poseidon flew as low as 15,000 feet near the Chinese-occupied reefs, some appeared to be like small cities, with multi-story buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways and white round structures Aquilino said were radars. Near Fiery Cross, more than 40 unspecified vessels could be seen apparently anchored.

China’s state-affiliated Global Times said the islands and adjacent waters are Chinese territory — contrary to an international tribunal ruling that held Beijing’s claims to own 90% of the South China Sea are illegal.

U.S. Navy officials surveyed outposts in the South China Sea´s Spratly archipelago – one of the world's most disputed regions – and found that the islands of Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross has been armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets.

“I think over the past 20 years we´ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the [People's Republic of China],” Aquilino said.

China has advanced all its capabilities “and that build-up of weaponization is destabilizing to the region,” Aquilino added, noting that the move antagonizes the other nations near the South China Sea, which include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

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FPI, Free Press International
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