‘We’ve lost China Sea’: US admiral
THE island fortresses are built. The airfields are ready. The harbours are open.
All China needs do now is move in the warships and combat jets.
The chief of US Fleet Forces Command has told US Congress that Beijing has built up enough military infrastructure in the South China Sea to completely control the disputed waterway.
"Once occupied, China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania," Admiral Philip S. Davidson wrote.
"The PLA will be able to use these bases to challenge US presence in the region, and any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants.
"In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States."
It emerged last Thursday that two Australian warships and their supporting tanker were reportedly confronted by the Chinese Navy a week ago as they moved through the region's vital sea lanes towards a goodwill visit toVietnam.
In the past, such visits to nations including the Philippines via the South China Sea have been routine.
What has changed is China's assertion - flying in the fact of a 2016 international arbitration court ruling - that it holds national sovereignty over the entire 3.5 million square kilometre waterway. The sea bounds the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing has established its claim as almost a fait accompli through illegally turning coral reefs and tidal rocky outcrops (the ownership of which is disputed) into enormous fortresses. It says that now these have artificially been turned into islands, they represent sovereign territory.
The international court of arbitration disagrees.
Admiral Davidson has been nominated to take over the United States' Pacific Command, responsible for co-ordinating army, navy and air force actions in that region.
He says only an armed conflict could now stop Beijing from closing the South China Sea's international sea lanes.
He told politicians this was why it was vital to recapture the technological advantage US forces held for five decades after World War II.
"In the future, hypersonic and directed energy weapons, resilient space, cyber and network-capabilities, and well-trained soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coastguardsmen will be crucial to our ability to fight and win," he said.
Admiral Davidson is using the standoff with China to assert the United States' Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missile limitation agreement (INF Treaty) with Russia is no longer valid.
China is not a signatory to the treaty. It has been rapidly building up an arsenal of missiles that fall within this category capable of striking US aircraft carrier formations deep at sea.
Admiral Davidson told Congress his forces cannot defend against new Chinese hypersonic weapons.
"In the Indo-Pacific, the absence of the INF treaty would provide additional options to counter China's existing missile capabilities, complicate adversary decision making, and impose costs by forcing adversaries to spend money on expensive missile defence systems," Admiral Davidson told US Congress.
"I believe the INF treaty today unfairly puts the United States at a disadvantage and places our forces at risk because China is not a signatory."
China's rhetoric over Taiwan has also become increasingly bellicose.
It's state-run media has issued a stern warning of "destruction" if the US continues to develop ties with the last outpost of China to resist Communist rule.
"Taiwan concerns China's core interests, but Washington has been unbridled in infringing upon the one-China policy and emboldened the small group of separatists in Taiwan to turn more aggressive and arrogant in their secession attempts," the Global Times editorial reads.
"The PLA has an unshakeable determination to safeguard national reunification.
Whoever infringes upon the one-China policy and advocates Taiwan independence will invite destruction. And the US is no exception."
Probing flights by Chinese bombers and fighters have become common place in recent months, with flights regularly circling Taiwan.
Following its recent participation in a South China Sea parade, a naval battle-group centered on the aircraft carrier Liaoning has passed between Japan and Taiwan to conduct exercises off its West Pacific shores.
"Although peaceful reunification with Taiwan is the optimal choice, in the mainland reunification by force is being seriously considered as an option," the state-approved editorial reads. "It is up to Chinese people to eventually decide when and how Taiwan will be reunified."
In language reminiscent to that coming from Kim Jong-un's state controlled North Korean media, the Global Times threatened: "the more Washington supports Taiwan separatists, the earlier they will see their doomsday coming."
"If Australia considers exchanges between countries as interference, it should lock itself up in the dark room," it quotes the Chinese foreign ministry as saying in response to the tense standoff between the two nations' warships.
"People who have such a mindset need to reflect", foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying reportedly said.
"If there is no mutual trust, there's no room for co-operation. China hopes Australia takes practical action and corrects its prejudice against China".
But trust is a two-way street.
Earlier this month China reversed its longstanding assertion that it held no intention to militarise the South China Sea artificial islands.
The claim has always been made in the face of mounting satellite evidence that it had installed hardened bunkers, military weapons systems and sensors, along with military grade runways.
Now, a spokesman from China's ministry of defence has declared China has a "natural right as a sovereign nation" to put troops and military equipment in the Spratly Islands.
The admission came shortly after it was reported military electronic jamming equipment had been installed at Mischief Reef in the Spratleys, alongside its enormous airfield and gun emplacements.
Surveillance photographs published by the Philippines news service The Inquierer earlier this year appeared to show two troop transport ships and an amphibious assault platform docked at Mischief Reef, offloading troops and equipment. Last week, another photograph revealed Chinese air force combat transport aircraft on the island's tarmac.
"I think, from the very beginning, China, we knew, was militarising the area by reclaiming these areas and by using them as military bases," said Philippines presidential spokesman Harry Roque.
STRONG NAVY, SECURE CHINA
All indications out of Beijing are that stand-offs in what is regarded as the world's busiest waterway will only increase in size and frequency.
China's newly appointed president-for-life Xi Jinping attended a fleet review of more than 40 warships and submarines in the South China Sea on April 12 "showcasing a new height of the People's Liberation Army Navy via its Liaoning carrier battle group and the new-generation nuclear submarine," the Global Times says. "China's ability to defend world and regional peace has reached another milestone."
In an address to the assembled sailors, President Xi said the need for a strong navy had never been more urgent.
"This is crucial to point out in today's international environment and his tone carried a robust sense of mission," the news service says. "Xi has expressed in several key reports that China is closer than ever to achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. However, history reminds us that the closer we are to accomplishing a glorious goal, the more the pressure and risk. Building a strong navy, as well as national defence, has never been more significant to China."
China's second aircraft carrier, the first of which it has built itself, is due to set sail for the first time later this month.
"China must ignore the noise of the 'Chinese military threat' theory from some Western countries," the editorial reads. "The theory is a misrepresentation of China's role as the world's second-largest economy and its role in securing global peace. The theory is also a discrimination to China's status as one of the world's major powers."