Brendan Nicholson, The Australian
1 April 2015
The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet has blasted China for its apparent efforts to fortify the disputed Spratly Islands by creating a "Great Wall of Sand" in the South China Sea.
Harry Harris said competing claims by several nations in the South China Sea were increasing regional tensions and the potential for miscalculation.
"But what's really drawing a lot of concern in the here and now is the unprecedented land reclamation currently being conducted by China," Admiral Harris said at the War Memorial in Canberra as a guest of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
"China is building artificial land by pumping sand on to live coral reefs – some of them submerged – and paving over them with concrete.
"China has now created over 4sq km of artificial landmass, roughly the size of Canberra's Black Mountain Nature Reserve."
China lays claim to much of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, The Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Last month, Janes Defence Weekly published satellite images of shallow reefs to which white sand outcrops had been added.
On those outcrops were what appeared to be Chinese military facilities, Janes said.
Admiral Harris said the Indo-Asia-Pacific region was known for its mosaic of beautiful natural islands, from the Maldives to the Andamans, from Indonesia and Malaysia, to the Great Barrier Reef and Tahiti.
"And I live in the beautiful Hawaiian Islands, in one of nature's great creations, a magnificent geography formed by millions of years of volcanic activity," he said.
"In sharp contrast, China is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers over the course of months.
"When one looks at China's pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-island line claim that is inconsistent with international law and the deep asymmetry between China's capabilities and those of its smaller neighbours, well it's no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raises serious questions about Chinese intentions.
"How China proceeds will be a key indicator of whether the region is heading towards confrontation or co-operation."
Like Australia, the U.S. had important ties to China.
"We're all hopeful that China will become a contributor to stability, not a source of insecurity, but as we like to say in navy circles, hope is not a strategy.
"So we also continue to constructively engage China, exploring new confidence building measures, while encouraging China to play a responsible role in supporting international rules and norms in the maritime domain."
The deputy commander of U.S. naval surface forces in the Pacific, Christopher Paul said Australia could add its new landing ships and Air Warfare Destroyers to U.S. "hunter-killer" groups to help repel aggressors in the region.
Admiral Harris said North Korea's refusal to apologise for sinking of one of the South's warships, Cheonan, five years ago and killing 46 sailors was a
powerful reminder that it remained a dangerous and unrepentant nation.
"It seeks nuclear weapons and a long-range missile system that can deliver them throughout the region," he said. "That, folks, keeps me up at night."
Australia was playing a leading role in global security.
"Our coalition fight against ISIL is a perfect example," he said.
"ISIL threatens all law-abiding, freedom-loving nations, including Australia. So I applaud Australia's leadership in this fight.
"The link between our two great democracies is as important to our future as it has been to our storeyed past. And that's why I remain committed to my part in deepening our defence relationship with Australia."