In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander John Aquilino said China has fully militarized at least three of the islands it built in the South China Sea. The Navy admiral’s comments over the weekend come despite past promises from Chinese President Xi Jinping saying China would not turn islands in contested waters into military bases.
“I think over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the [People’s Republic of China],” Adm. Aquilino said. “They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.”
The interview happened onboard a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago. During the patrol, the plane was repeatedly ordered to move away.
“China has sovereignty over the Spratly islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment,” one of the radio messages said. “I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” a U.S. pilot radioed back.
“I really see our mission out here as maritime domain awareness,” Commander Joel Martinez, the plane’s commanding officer, said of his work in the South China Sea. “And ultimately what that is, is for us and this remarkable crew behind me to go out here every day to monitor and observe all the changes in the South China Sea.”
The latest changes to the South China Sea islands could further escalate tensions between the U.S. and China over the Indo-Pacific region. Last year, the U.S., Great Britain and Australia announced an alliance in the region. The U.S. is also working with the Philippine military. Commander Martinez stressed the importance of the U.S.-Philippine relationship Sunday.
“An opportunity to work with the Philippine military is critical right now as we strengthen our ties, our relationships, as we both have a shared vision, and a common goal for a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” Martinez said.