Monday, May 4, 2015
U.S. keeps watchful eye as China builds 'Great Wall of Sand' in South China Sea
Kirk Spitzer, USA Today
3 May 2015
ABOVE THE EAST CHINA SEA – The crew of Pelican One keeps a watchful eye as the U.S. Navy patrol plane swoops low to identify a ship operating near waters off southwestern Japan that China now claims as its territory.
After a radio check and a close look confirms the ship is a harmless Panama-flagged commercial tanker, Pelican One veers off and resumes a patrol that can last up to 12 hours and takes the plane thousands of miles from its base in Okinawa, Japan.
These missions have taken on new urgency as the U.S. military keeps a closer eye on China's increasingly assertive territorial claims, including an unprecedented island-building campaign in the nearby South China Sea.
On any given day, U.S. aircraft bristling with cameras, sensors and advanced electronics crisscross the region, hunting submarines, surface ships and aircraft – and charting progress on massive landfills that have suddenly appeared from submerged reefs and shoals.
The fear is that these islands will provide bases for China to restrict air traffic or threaten vital shipping lanes.
The Navy's patrol fleet has grown from 12 to 16 aircraft in the last three years and includes state-of-the-art P-8 Poseidons, militarized versions of Boeing 737s that are being deployed first to the Pacific.
"We go out, we watch, we look and we listen, to all things going on. And we do it routinely," says Navy Capt. Mike Parker, who commands the patrol fleet. Parker said U.S. aircraft remain in international airspace throughout their missions.
He spoke to a USA TODAY reporter invited on a training mission aboard Pelican One.
U.S. officials have watched with alarm since China began its landfill operations in the South China Sea last year, creating artificial islands with astonishing speed.
Commercial satellite images show extensive landfill and construction on at least seven previously submerged reefs or atolls in the Spratly Islands group, located west of the Philippines.
Some of the new islands include runways that can accommodate China's biggest military aircraft, along with port facilities and dozens of multistory buildings, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a research project sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
"China is creating a 'Great Wall of Sand' with dredges and bulldozers," Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, warned in a speech in Australia on April 1. Harris said that raises "serious questions about Chinese intentions."
China claims sovereignty over virtually all of the South China Sea, including some islands more than 1,000 miles from its shores. Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam have overlapping claims, as well.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, told Congress in April that the new islands would allow China to exert greater influence over what is now contested territory.
"Expanded land features down there also could eventually lead to the deployment of things such as long-range radars, military and advanced missile systems," Locklear said. "And it might be a platform if they ever wanted to establish an air defense (zone)."
Chinese officials acknowledge that some military equipment will be located on the new islands, but insist the overall intent is benign.
"The main purpose is to improve the functions of facilities there so as to provide services to ships of China, neighboring countries and other countries that sail across the South China Sea," China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, said in a speech in Washington, D.C. on April 16. "Such services will include shelter for ships, navigation aid, search and rescue, marine meteorological observation, fishery service and many others."
Still, it's a dangerous neighborhood.
In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a naval battle near the Spratly group in which more than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed. A Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 patrol plane near China's Hainan Island in April 2001, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the Americans to make an emergency landing.
Last summer, a Chinese fighter jet performed an "unsafe" intercept of a Navy P-8 operating in international airspace in the South China Sea, prompting a protest from Washington.
More close encounters are likely once Chinese aircraft beginning operating from the new islands, said Ben Schreer, senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
"It will make for a potentially more volatile region," Schreer said. "What's emerging is sort of a constant or permanent 'gray peace.' Not war, not peace, but a permanent tension that you have to manage and where the risk of miscalculation is quite considerable."
To keep China in check, the United States is looking for help from allies in the region. Navy Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is based in Japan, has said he would like to see joint U.S. and Japanese air and sea patrols in the South China Sea.
Japan already is embroiled in a tense dispute with China over ownership of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Japan has had administrative control of those islands – known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China – since the 1890s. But China recently begun sending coast guard ships around those islands to assert China's claim. China also claims control over the airspace there. Neither the United States nor Japan recognize that zone.
Japan does not routinely patrol far from its home islands and has not officially responded to the suggestion of joint patrols in the South China Sea.
Navy Capt. Parker would welcome assistance. "It would be very helpful," he said. "Japan and the U.S. have the same interests in the region, and those interests extend way down into the South China Sea."