By Jeremy Page, 9 August 2016 – The Wall Street Journal
Adm. Swift says air patrols, joint drills with Russia are destabilizing steps in wake of tribunal’s ruling against Beijing’s claims
QINGDAO, China—The commander of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific said China had taken several destabilizing steps in the South China Sea—including conducting air patrols and announcing joint drills there with Russia—since a tribunal ruling against Beijing’s maritime claims in July.
Adm. Scott Swift , commander of the Pacific Fleet, also cited recent activities by Chinese fishing vessels in the East China Sea and reports that Beijing had erected hangars for military aircraft on artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
Adm. Swift on Tuesday said he didn’t think the recent Chinese steps were direct responses to the international tribunal’s ruling on July 12—which China has rejected—in a case brought by the Philippines over Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.
He said he was pleased overall by the response of those affected by the ruling.
But a lack of transparency about China’s intentions meant some of its recent actions had added to tensions in the region, Adm. Swift said on board a U.S. guided-missile destroyer that was in the eastern Chinese port of Qingdao for the first visit by a U.S. Navy ship since the tribunal ruling.
“It’s a very, very dynamic theater,” Adm. Swift said of recent developments in the South China Sea and East China Sea. “Things are changing all the time. So it’s difficult without a clear stated intent to ascertain exactly what that intent is, and that’s not a good place to be. That is not increasing the stability of the region.”
China’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. China says the tribunal had no jurisdiction on the case, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has said Beijing won’t accept any proposition or action based on the ruling.
Despite a barrage of Chinese invective against the ruling, all sides have appeared eager to resolve the issue through negotiations, and on Monday, the former Philippine President Fidel Ramos traveled to Hong Kong to try to lay the groundwork for formal talks with China.
Still, U.S. officials have expressed fears that Beijing could respond to the ruling by expanding its island-building or declaring an air-defense identification zone over the South China Sea, similar to one it established over the East China Sea in 2013.
Some experts and diplomats see signs that Beijing is starting to escalate its activities in disputed waters. Japan formally protested to China over the weekend, accusing Beijing of installing radar on an offshore gas platform in the East China Sea and of sending fishing and coast-guard vessels into waters around disputed islands there. China says it has sovereignty over the area.
China’s air force on Saturday said several of its aircraft, including Su-30 jet fighters and H-6K bombers, had conducted patrols over two contested areas of the South China Sea—the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal.
On Monday, a U.S. think tank published satellite photographs it said showed that China had built hangars for dozens of military aircraft including jet fighters and bombers on three of its artificial islands in the Spratlys.
“What doesn’t reduce tensions are these reports of this continued militarization of the islands, if that is indeed the case,” Adm. Swift said, adding it wasn’t yet clear if the hangars would be used by military planes. He added that China and the U.S. needed to ease tensions by organizing more regular exchanges such as the visit by the USS Benfold and his meeting on Monday with Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, the head of the Chinese navy’s North Sea Fleet, which is based in Qingdao.
“That increases the angst and the uncertainty—that lack of transparency—and that is generally destabilizing.” President Xi publicly pledged not to militarize the Spratlys during a visit to Washington in September.
Adm. Swift said he was also concerned by China’s announcement in July that it would conduct joint naval drills with Russia in the South China Sea for the first time in September.
“There are other places that that exercise could have been conducted,” he said. He said it was too early to tell whether recent Chinese fishing activity represented an escalation or a regular seasonal uptick.
He also said he wasn’t aware of any Chinese land reclamation at the Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines. U.S. and Philippine officials have suggested Beijing might try to build another artificial island there.