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China has fully militarized three islands in South China Sea, top US admiral says

A P-8A Poseidon assigned to the Bureau of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20 flies over the Chesapeake Bay. VX-20 is part of Naval Test Wing Atlantic. (Greg L. Davis/U.S. Navy)
March 21, 2022

A top U.S. military commander said on Sunday that China has fully militarized a minimum of three islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea. The islands – which were built by China – are armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets.

U.S Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John C. Aquilino said the moves contradicted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s previous pledge not to militarize the islands. The actions are being perceived as a way for China to flex its military muscle, Aquilino said, as The Associated Press reported.

“I think over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC,” Aquilino told The Associated Press in an interview, referring to the acronym for China’s formal name, The People’s Republic of China. “They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.”

During his interview with the AP, Aquilino was onboard a P-8A Poseidon aircraft that passed by Chinese outposts in the South China Sea. The American crew was warned multiple times by Chinese troops that they had “illegally” entered China’s territory, despite being in international airspace.

“China has sovereignty over the Spratly islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment,” Chinese authorities stated in a radio message.

The U.S. Navy plane’s crew dismissed the warnings and continued their patrol, responding, “I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state.”

“Exercising these rights is guaranteed by international law and I am operating with due regard to the rights and duties of all states,” they said.

Aquilino said that China constructed missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and more on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross.

“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,” the commander said. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”

Aquilino added that both military and civilians planes could easily come within range of China’s militarized islands.

“So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so concerning for the militarization of these islands,” he said. “They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace.”

America’s mission in the South China Sea is “to prevent war” through deterrence, Aquilino said, as well as promote peace and stability.  

“Should deterrence fail, my second mission is to be prepared to fight and win,” added Aquilino, who commands 380,000 military and civilian personnel across 36 nations and territories, the largest in the U.S. military.