Pacom Chief: China’s Land Reclamation Has Broad Consequences
China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea could have far-reaching U.S. security and economic consequences by disrupting international rules and norms that have supported the global community for decades, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command said today.
In a security forum panel discussion in Aspen, Colorado, Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. said China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is an issue the American public must know about and the United States must address.
“While Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have also conducted land reclamation in the South China Sea, their total -- approximately 100 acres over 45 years -- is dwarfed by the size, scope and scale of China’s massive buildup,” Harris said. “In only 18 months, China has reclaimed almost 3,000 acres.”
Each year, he noted, more than $5.3 trillion in global sea-based trade relies on unimpeded sea lanes through the South China Sea, adding that the Strait of Malacca alone sees more than 25 percent of oil shipments and 50 percent of all natural gas transits each day. This is made possible through the regional countries’ adherence to longstanding customary international law, which protects freedom of navigation, he added.
Fundamental to Global Economy
International recognition and protection of freedom of navigation are fundamental to the global economy and the U.S. way of life, Harris said, and unilateral attempts by any nation to disrupt freedom of navigation place the international system and global economy at risk.
“The South China Sea is front and center in the tug-of-war between the majority of regional nations that want to maintain the status quo and China that wants to change it to suit its narrow self-interest,” he said. “This is why Deputy Secretary of State [Tony] Blinken recently compared the aggressive actions of China in the South China Sea to Russia’s actions in Crimea. They both demonstrate desire by individual actors to change the status quo.”
China Not Using Diplomacy
Rather than pursing diplomatic actions to address their disputes, China is changing tactics “through aggressive coercive island building without meaningful diplomatic efforts toward dispute resolution or arbitration,” the admiral said.
Harris said China is building false sovereignty as it builds man-made islands on top of coral reefs, rocks and shoals, which destroys surrounding underwater environment.
“That severe environmental impact is one aspect of China’s land reclamation that I don’t believe has received enough attention, because protecting our fragile environment is a global responsibility,” he said. China’s has actions have led to “the most rapid rate of permanent loss of coral reef area in human history,” he added, citing University of Miami marine biologist John McManus.
And while President Barack Obama is designating an additional 490,000 square miles as marine sanctuary in the Pacific, “China’s destructive activities will result in the permanent loss of coral reef in one of the most important reef systems in the Pacific,” Harris said.
China’s Destruction Exceeds Environment
But more damage is taking place because of China’s land reclamation, the Pacom commander said. The shared principles that ensured security and prosperity in the region for decades also are threatened, he noted.
“Secretary of Defense [Ash] Carter stated at last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue that China is out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture, and the regional consensus that favors diplomacy and opposes coercion,” Harris said. “These are the reasons that the U.S. has called for peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes, an end to attempts to unilaterally change the status quo, and an immediate halt to land reclamation by all claimants.
“We call on China to use the mechanisms of international dispute resolution in good faith,” he continued, “and to abide by those decisions as so many of its regional neighbors have already done.”
China’s actions are inducing its South China Sea neighbors to build stronger relationships with each other and with the United States, the admiral said, “driven not by a sudden U.S. effort to increase stability and security within the region, but by China’s conspicuous failure to do the same.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)