08:56 GMT +310 December 2019
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    China has confirmed military installations on an artificial island near the disputed Spratly islands, posing yet another test for US overseas military, diplomatic and political influence

    US Accuses China of 'Creating a Great Wall of Sand'

    © AP Photo / Roley Dela Pena, Pool
    Asia & Pacific
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    Speaking before an audience in Australia, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet rang alarm bells over perceived Chinese aggression. But shortly after condemning the construction of a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea, he stressed the importance of an American fleet presence – a great, floating fence, you might say.

    At a naval conference in Canberra, Admiral Harry Harris Jr. of the US Pacific Fleet spent a few moments speaking on the beauty of the South China Sea, a body of water teeming with natural islands and coral reefs.

    "But what’s really drawing a lot of concern in the here and now is the unprecedented land reclamation currently being conducted by China," Harris said. "China is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers over the course of months."

    This wall, as the admiral calls it, refers to a series of submerged reefs in the Spratlys archipelago, which China has built into utilitarian landmasses, complete with buildings and aircraft runways.

    "China is building artificial land by pumping sand on to live coral reefs – some of them submerged – and paving over them with concrete," he said. In total, Harris said that China had converted over 4 square kilometers of sea into land.

    The purpose of these islands is what worries both the US military and other regional players. The South China Sea is a highly contested area, with territorial disputes between a number of nations. While China claims a vast majority of the sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia all have overlapping stakes. Earlier this month, both the Philippines and Vietnam filed diplomatic protests to Beijing over Chinese naval presence near their shores.

    The main fear is that these islands are being built as military installations with the intention of broadening Beijing's influence in the region.

    "When one looks at China’s pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states…it’s no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raises serious questions about Chinese intentions," Harris said.

    "How China proceeds will be a key indicator of whether the region is heading towards confrontation or cooperation," he added.

    But to address these concerns, the United States is bolstering its own military presence. Last month, the US Navy admitted that it is launching its most advanced spy plane – the Poseidon P-8A – out of bases in the Philippines. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, demanding a formal strategy for countering Chinese influence in the South China Sea.

    An aerial photo shows Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines.
    © AFP 2019 / ROLEX DELA PENA / POOL
    Spratly group of islands

    Some kind of strategy appears to be taking shape. Admiral Harris also said that the US Navy was currently in preparation to shift 60% of its fleet to the Pacific by 2020, and the Pentagon is also seeking broader cooperation with India to conduct maritime exercises.

    The conference, itself, was meant to signal a stronger partnership between the US and Australia. Earlier in the day, Rear Admiral Christopher J. Paul, deputy commander of the US Pacific surface fleet, urged the Australian Navy to join US-led "hunter-killer" patrol groups.

    Paul also said that the US was moving in its latest Zumwalt stealth destroyers, and that combined with Australian missile destroyers, amphibious ships, and frigates, the allied nations could pursue the "distributed lethality" doctrine recently decided on by the US Navy.

    "A shift to the offensive is necessary to create more favorable conditions to project power where required," Paul said.

    Building artificial islands may be one form of abstract aggression, but the expansion of US naval presence over 10,000 miles from home could be perceived as another, more direct type of aggression.

    Related:

    Beijing's Island Construction in South China Sea Poses No Threat - Minister
    US Concerned Beijing Buildup in South China Sea Will Upset Regional Balance
    Beijing Defends Construction on Disputed Islands in South China Sea
    Tags:
    land reclamation, US Navy, Christopher Paul, Harry Harris Jr, Spratly Islands, South China Sea, Australia, China, United States
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