The Chinese government has fully militarized at least three artificially-constructed islands in the South China Sea, a top US military official told the Associated Press.
US Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John C. Aquilino revealed that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed an undisclosed number of fighter jets, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, laser weapons, and jamming equipment in the disputed territory.
“I think over the past 20 years, we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC (People’s Republic of China),” he said in an exclusive interview. “They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.”
China’s increasing military buildup in the disputed waters is seen as an aggressive move by nations that claim parts of the South China Sea, including the Philippines and Vietnam.
It is also in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s previous statements that the country would not transform the islands into military bases.
Chinese representatives have yet to respond to the admiral’s announcement. However, the country has long maintained that its military buildup in the South China Sea is meant to protect China’s sovereign rights.
US Navy commanding officer Joel Martinez recalled an incident when an American P-8A Poseidon flew as low as 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) near the Chinese-occupied reefs.
On the aircraft’s monitors, the crew were able to detect what appeared to be “small cities” with multi-story buildings, warehouses, seaports, hangars, runways, and radars.
Over 40 unspecified vessels were also seen anchored near Fiery Cross.
Aquilino claims that the construction of aircraft hangars and other military facilities on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross seems to be complete. He said it is not certain whether China will develop more military infrastructure in other areas.
“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,” the admiral noted. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”
37 acres of land reclaimed and counting…
Vietnam started reclamation on the disputed #SouthChinaSea feature #TennentReef, of which timelapse via @sentinel_hub shows rapid expansion since 2022. pic.twitter.com/xYuBZOROHe
— SCS Probing Initiative (@SCS_PI) March 15, 2022