Top Chinese military officer visited troops stationed on disputed islands, Beijing says

The Chinese military’s No 2 paid an unprecedented visit to Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea in recent days, the defence ministry said on Friday.

General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, the body governing the PLA and chaired by President Xi Jinping, led a delegation to inspect construction on the islands, the ministry said in a brief statement. The works included lighthouses, weather stations and other facilities, it said.

China has seven reclaimed reefs in the contested waters and says the outposts are largely for civilian purposes.

The ministry did not specify which ones Fan visited or the exact date, but the inspection coincided with joint military drills the United States is conducting in the area with the Philippines, Japan and Australia. Fan is the most senior Chinese military official known to have visited the islands. In September 2014, Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the PLA Navy, inspected reclamation work in the region, according to a report from Taiwan’s national security bureau.

The ministry’s announcement came as US Defence Secretary Ash Carter visited the US aircraft carrier the USS John C. Stennis, a move likely to upset Beijing. On Thursday, Carter announced an enhanced “military alliance” between the US and the Philippines, and expressed his concerns over China’s activities in the South China Sea.

It is the second time he has visited a carrier deployed the area. In November, he landed on the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea as its territory and has built runways on several artificial islands as well as installed military facilities and stationed troops there.

The Philippines, Vietnam and other nations claim territory controlled or claimed by China and increased military and coastguard deployments by all sides could increase the potential for conflict.

Beijing denounced the four-nation drills, which began on April 4 and were due to last 11 days, as well as joint patrols the Philippines and the US planned to conduct in the area.

China vowed to “resolutely defend” its interests in the waters and accused Washington and Manila of “militarising the region” and harbouring a “cold war ­mentality”.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said it had asked China to withdraw fighter jets that Beijing had recently sent to the disputed Paracel Islands.

China said it would “resolutely defend” its interests and accused the two long-standing allies of militarising the region and harbouring a “cold war mentality”.

“The joint patrols between the United States and the Philippines in the South China Sea are militarising the region and are non-beneficial to regional peace and stability,” said a statement posted to the ministry’s website late Thursday.

“The Chinese military will pay close attention to the situation, and resolutely defend China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests,” the statement said.

The Chinese military will pay close attention to the situation, and resolutely defend China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests

Ministry of Foreign Affairs

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea as its territory and is building artificial islands there topped with airstrips and other infrastructure. The Philippines, Vietnam and others also claim territory controlled or claimed by China and increased military and coast guard deployments by all sides could increase the potential for conflict.

The ministry’s statement also referenced China’s long-standing opposition to US military alliances in the region. It regards those as a form of unwelcome interference that stymies its desired status as the pre-eminent military power in the Asia-Pacific.

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“Strengthening the US-Philippine military alliance ... is a sign of a cold war mentality that is not beneficial to peace and stability in the South China Sea,” the statement said.

The South China Sea dispute also featured in talks between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of close US ally Australia, which is trying to balance security needs with its economy’s reliance on the Chinese market.

“We’ve always had good and constructive discussions but our position is that all claimants, all claimants, should settle disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law,” Turnbull told reporters in Beijing on Friday, a day after his meeting with Li.

Our position is that all claimants, all claimants, should settle disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is visiting China

Beijing and Washington have repeatedly traded accusations over who is responsible for raising tensions in the South China Sea, with the US citing China’s island-building project and efforts to block other disputants from parts of the crucial waterway, through which passes more than US$5 trillion in global trade passes each year.

“The US has been taking all kinds of actions to provoke China, forcing it to take counteractions that will result in an escalation of the situation,” Su Hao, an international relations expert at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, told The Associated Press.

The US has been taking all kinds of actions to provoke China, forcing it to take counteractions that will result in an escalation of the situation

Su Hao, China Foreign Affairs University

“The joint patrols are part of the US plan and now the plan is being implemented,” Su said.

Su said Beijing anticipates the US would eventually launch joint patrols with other nations to further challenge China’s position in the South China Sea.

Chinese media speculate that could involve Japan, China’s historical nemesis with which it is feuding over ownership of the uninhabited Japanese-controlled Diaoyu Islands, which Japan calls the Senkakus, in the East China Sea.

“The continuous escalation of the situation will offer the US better excuses and more opportunities to strengthen its military presence in the South China Sea, so as to turn the South China Sea into a region of military confrontation,” Su said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters

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