Saturday, May 9, 2015

• US official: China island building now totals 2,000 acres - By LOLITA C. BALDOR

FILE - In this April 20, 2015 file photo, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, left, points to reveal recent images of China's reclamation activities being done at the disputed islands in the South China Sea during a news conference at Camp Aguinaldo at suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines. The dispute over the strategic waterways of the South China Sea has intensified, pitting a rising China against its smaller and militarily weaker neighbors who all lay claim to a string of isles, coral reefs and lagoons known as the Spratly and the Paracel islands. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File)

  WASHINGTON (AP) — China's rapidly expanding campaign to construct artificial islands, potentially for military use or airstrips, now totals about 2,000 acres (800 hectares) and could far outstrip that amount as the year goes on, a senior defense official said Friday.

The new estimate, disclosed for the first time, comes as the Pentagon released its annual report on China's military power. The report warns that while the intent of Beijing's construction in contested islands in the South China Sea intent is unclear, five emerging outposts could be used for surveillance systems, harbors, an airfield and logistical support.

The wide-ranging report also details Chinese government-backed cyberattacks against the U.S. government to collect intelligence and steal high-tech data from defense programs to support China's industry. And it warns that China now "boasts the most dynamic space program in the world today."

The document also repeats persistent U.S. concerns about China's growing capacity to project military power beyond its borders, with continued investments in new missiles, ships and aircraft as well as cyber, space and electronic warfare. That military modernization, the report said, "has the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages."

For the first time, however, the report describes the "extensive" land reclamation at five outposts in the Spratly Islands, adding that at four of the sites the work has shifted to mainly development and construction.

The report says China had reclaimed about 500 acres (200 hectares) as of late last December, underscoring the dramatic increase in the past four months. The defense official said the construction has been methodical and continuous since December. The official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to the report, China's government says the projects "are mainly for improving the living and working conditions of those stationed on the islands. However, most analysts outside China believe that China is attempting to change facts on the ground by improving its defense infrastructure in the South China Sea."

Chinese officials have defended the land reclamation by saying it is Beijing's territory, adding that the buildings and infrastructure are for public service use and to support fishermen. It accuses the Philippines, Vietnam and others of carrying out their own building work on other islands.

The Obama administration says land reclamation risks exacerbating tensions in the South China Sea, where China and five other claimants contest sovereignty of tiny islands and reefs. Last summer, the U.S. called for a moratorium on construction work by the various claimants, but China has only doubled down.

U.S. officials are concerned China's activities could be a prelude to enforcing a possible air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, similar to one it declared over disputed Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea in 2013.

Although it is unclear what will ultimately be built on these expanded outposts, the report says, "China will be able to use them as persistent civil-military bases of operation to enhance its presence significantly in disputed areas."

China's reclamation program dwarfs that of any other nation and has inflamed tensions in the region. Last month, the Philippines urged its fellow Southeast Asian countries to take immediate steps to halt the building, warning that failure to do so will allow Beijing to take "de facto control" of the area.

According to the defense official, Vietnam has reclaimed about 60 acres( 25 hectares) of land since 2009. The report said Taiwan began a "modest land reclamation effort" on Itu Aba Island last year, and has reclaimed about five acres (2 hectares) near the island's airstrip. There are reports that Taiwan is building a $100 million port near the airstrip that could accommodate naval frigates and coast guard cutters, the Pentagon said.

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Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands 
U.S. concerned that building boom signals more aggressive territorial claims by China in the region

 A photo provided by the Philippines last month shows construction by China at a reef in the disputed Spratley Islands in the South China Sea in February.

WASHINGTON—China has dramatically expanded its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea this year, American officials said, stoking U.S. fears of expanding territorial claims by Beijing in the region.

American officials have determined that in the past five months alone, China has expanded the artificial islands on submerged reefs known as the Spratlys fourfold to as much as 2,000 acres of land, a senior U.S. official said Friday.
The U.S. had estimated that China before this year had built as many as 500 acres of land by “reclaiming” natural materials like sand and dirt through dredging to create the islands where none existed before.

The new estimate underscores U.S. fears that Beijing is using the islands to build military airstrips and other facilities that China could then use to expand its territorial claims.
It also comes as U.S. policy makers scramble to determine a way to respond to China’s muscle-flexing in the region.
Long suspicious of Beijing’s ambitions, Washington has attempted to maintain a dialogue with Beijing and has been reluctant to create a new confrontation in Asia.
A Pentagon report released Friday reinforces the U.S. concerns. 

It found China has been busy constructing a network of islands as well as making a number of infrastructure improvements on several of them.

For example, at five sites, China is using heavy equipment to build facilities that U.S. officials suspect could be used for expanded outposts that could include harbors, house communications and surveillance systems as well as logistics-support hubs. 

Pentagon officials are aware of at least one 3,000-yard airfield that analysts say is halfway paved.
The ultimate purpose of the expansion projects remains unclear and the Chinese government has stated these projects are mainly for improving the living and working conditions of those stationed on the islands,” according to the Pentagon report, titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015” and compiled at the request of Congress.

However, the report noted, “Most analysts believe that China is attempting to change facts on the ground by improving its defense infrastructure in the South China Sea.”
The Pentagon report covered a period up to December 2014, when officials had assessed that China had constructed islands totaling 500 acres.

The finding China has expanded the new construction this year to 2,000 acres was confirmed by officials independently.
Chinese officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Friday but in the past they have dismissed complaints about its island-building program, saying Beijing is entitled to undertake construction projects within its own sovereign territory.

Beijing’s new assertiveness in the South China Sea may force Washington to address the issue more directly, defense analysts say.

There already have been some signs of that.
In recent weeks, U.S. military leaders have begun using sharper rhetoric when describing China’s assertion of its claims in the South China Sea.

The U.S. has begun to adopt a so-called name-and-shame approach, carefully calling out Beijing for its activities, even as officials remain perplexed about how best to respond.
American pleas to Beijing to stop the construction of the islands have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Adm. Samuel Locklear, the U.S. Pacific Command chief, told a Congressional panel last month that construction of the islands allows the Chinese to exert greater influence over the disputed area and could lead to Chinese deployments of air and land assets, to include radar and missile systems, to make its territorial claims.

The issue is expected to top the list of agenda items at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a security forum in Singapore, to be attended by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, later this month.

The U.S. doesn’t recognize any claims to islands that are artificially formed, according to a Pentagon official.
Under international law, an island is a naturally formed feature and it is specifically says in international law that an artificial island is not entitled to a territorial sea,” according to a Defense Department official.

In the meantime, new satellite images released this week showed that China isn’t the only country doing construction in the region.
Vietnam, a U.S. ally, has also been building on two other sites. 

Imagery taken as recently as April 30 shows that Vietnam, known to have constructed such islands in the past, has built on at least two islands, known as West London Reef and Sand Cay, representing a total of about 85,000 square meters, or roughly 21 square acres.

The projects under construction include trenches and potential gun emplacements, according to the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies and by DigitalGlobe, which released the images Thursday.
“While it’s clear that Vietnam has claimed some land features, it’s also clear that the scope and scale pales in comparison to China’s,” said Mira Rapp-Hopper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 

“While we have found evidence that Vietnam has reclaimed two features, China has reclaimed seven.”
China’s construction activity is more recent than Vietnam’s, Rapp-Hopper said. 

“It’s a much bigger set of projects, more features, and a much shorter timeline,” she said.
While concerning, the work Vietnam has done in the South China Sea is nothing compared to that of what China is up to, a defense official said.

“We do not support South China Sea land reclamation efforts by any party,” the official said by email. 

“However, the pace and scale of China’s land reclamation in recent years dwarfs that of any other claimant. China has expanded the acreage on the outposts it occupies by some four hundred times.”

Red alert: China accelerates land reclamation in disputed islands
The pace and scale of China's land reclamation in recent years dwarfs that of any other claimant. China has expanded the acreage on outposts it occupies by some 400 times.

 Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of the Kalayaan Ilands, points to a map showing the island of Kalayaan, which means "Freedom" in Filipino.

China embarked upon extensive land reclamation efforts at five outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands last year, adding huge amounts of terrain to bolster its civil and military presence in an area claimed by rivals, a new Pentagon report said on Friday.

Chinese building and land-filling efforts have accelerated this year, with the total acreage added to the outposts in the South China Sea growing from 500 in December to about 2,000 today, a U.S. defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Spratly chain, where China has built at least one previously submerged reef into an island, is claimed by at least three other countries: the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia.

"We do not support South China Sea land reclamation efforts by any party," the official said. "However, the pace and scale of China's land reclamation in recent years dwarfs that of any other claimant. China has expanded the acreage on outposts it occupies by some 400 times."

By comparison, Vietnam has reclaimed some 60 acres of land closer to home in the South China Sea area since 2009, the official said.

Beijing's activity in the South China Sea was one of several security issues raised on Friday in the Pentagon's annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments.
The report, which covered the 2014 calendar year, also raised concerns about cyber intrusions, a growing submarine force and China's lack of transparency about its military intentions.

China used its cyber-espionage abilities to target U.S. defense-related networks last year on a number of occasions, the report said, successfully penetrating contractors for U.S. Transportation Command about 20 times to steal information.

Beijing has placed a priority on modernizing its submarine force and now has 62: five nuclear attack submarines, four nuclear ballistic missile submarines and 53 diesel attack submarines, the report said.

That compares to 71 operated by the United States.
The Chinese force is expected to grow to between 69 and 78 by 2020.

China has manifested "more forceful rhetoric and confrontational behaviour" in dealing with rival claimants for the region's resources, the report said, including blocking resupply missions to a Philippine outpost at the Second Thomas Shoal and sending a drilling rig into waters claimed by Vietnam.

China's land reclamation in the Spratlys will enable it to have "persistent civil-military bases of operation to enhance its presence significantly in disputed areas," the report said.
Beijing's continues to pursue a long-term, comprehensive military modernization programme.

China has the "most rapidly maturing" space programme in the world, is the only country other than the United States with two concurrent stealth fighter programs and has road mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach most of the continental United States, it said.

The military modernization "has the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages," and is worrying because of the lack of transparency surrounding Chinese decision-making and intentions, the report said.
"Absent greater transparency, these concerns will likely intensify as the PLA (People's Liberation Army) modernization progresses," it said.