WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said ahead of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Washington that America should challenge China’s claim to territory in the South China Sea by patrolling close to artificial islands built by Beijing.
Admiral Harry Harris told a Senate hearing on Thursday that China’s building of three airfields on the islands and their further militarization was of “great concern militarily” and posed a threat to all countries in the region.
Pressed by members the Senate Armed Services Committee on whether U.S. forces should challenge China by sailing within 12 nautical miles of the islands, Harris replied:
“I believe that we should exercise - be allowed to exercise, freedom of navigation and flight - maritime and flight - in the South China Sea against those islands that are not islands.”
Asked if this meant going within 12 miles, he answered, referring to the artificial islands: “Depending on the feature.” He added: “Conducting that kind of ... freedom-of-navigation operation is one of the operations we’re considering.”
Committee chairman Senator John McCain criticized the Obama administration for failing to challenge China by sailing within 12 miles of the artificial islands, saying this “dangerous mistake” amounted to de facto recognition of Chinese claims.
Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear told the committee that such patrols had not been conducted since 2012, but were among an “array” of future U.S. options.
Chinese President Xi starts a week-long visit to the United States on Monday. U.S. concerns about China’s pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea will be high on President Barack Obama’s agenda in their talks on Friday.
McCain said the restrictions on U.S. patrols had continued even after China sent naval vessels within 12 miles of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska last week.
Shear said the Chinese had not yet placed advanced weaponry on the artificial islands and added: “We are going to do everything we can to ensure that they don’t.” He added: “This is going to be a long-term effort.”
Harris said China was building 10,000-foot (3,000- meter) runways on the islands.
“And they’re also building deep-water port facilities there, which could put their deep-water ships, their combatant ships, there, which gives them an extra capability,” he said.
There would be a network of missile sites, runways, fighter planes and surveillance sites. “It creates a mechanism by which China would have de facto control over the South China Sea in any scenario short of war,” he said.
Harris said the United States was also seeing increasingly long range submarine deployment by China, including to the Horn of Africa region and North Arabian Sea in conjunction with counter-piracy operations, and of ballistic missile submarines in the Pacific.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom and David Alexander; Editing by Eric Walsh and David Gregorio