WASHINGTON China is "changing the operational landscape" in the South China Sea by deploying missiles and radar as part of an effort to dominate East Asia, a senior U.S. military official said on Tuesday.
China is "clearly militarising the South China (Sea)," said Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, adding: "You'd have to believe in a flat earth to think otherwise."
Speaking ahead of a meeting in Washington between China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Harris said China is escalating the situation in the South China Sea with new deployments. Asked about its aims, he said: "I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia."
Harris said he believed China's deployment of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea's Paracel chain, hew radars on Cuarteron Reef in Spratlys and its building of airstrips were "actions that are changing in my opinion the operational landscape in the South China Sea."
Harris also mentioned to surface-to-surface missiles in his testimony, but a PACOM spokesman said he meant only to refer to surface-to-air missiles being deployed at Woody Island.
Responding to another question, Harris said Chinese DF-21 and DF-26 anti-ship missiles could pose a threat to U.S. aircraft carriers, but said the vessels were resilient and that the United States had "the capability to do what has to be done if it comes to that."
Harris also said he supported regular U.S. air and naval patrols to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.
A U.S. think tank reported on Monday that China may be installing a high-frequency radar system on the Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands that could significantly boost its ability to control the strategic sea.
Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies cited recent satellite images and also pointed to "probable" radars at Gaven, Hughes and Johnson South Reefs in the Spratlys as well as helipads and possible gun emplacements.
On Thursday, the United States accused China of raising tensions by its apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island.
China's has also built military-length airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea.
On Tuesday, Kerry said in congressional testimony that militarization of facilities in the South China Sea did not help efforts to resolve rival maritime claims and Washington was encouraging peaceful resolution of such disputes.
China's Foreign Ministry said ahead of Wang's visit Beijing's military deployments in the South China Sea were no different from U.S. deployments on Hawaii.
China's Ministry of Defence said on its microblog on Tuesday China had established "necessary defensive facilities" that were "legal and appropriate".
China claims most of the South China Sea and has responded angrily to recent U.S. patrols near its outposts there.
The chairman of the Senate committee, Republican John McCain, accused China of behaving like a bully and said the Obama administration needed to respond more robustly with more such patrols.
A U.S. official, who did not want to be otherwise identified, told Reuters the U.S. Navy plans to carry out more frequent and complex freedom-of-navigation operations in the region and could schedule another in coming weeks.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Eric Walsh, James Dalgleish and Frances Kerry)
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Updated Date: Feb 24, 2016 02:46 AM