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» South China Sea: China placing mobile artillery on reclaimed island, US says
South China Sea: China placing mobile artillery on reclaimed island, US says
The United States says China has placed mobile artillery weapons systems on a reclaimed island in the disputed South China Sea, a development that Republican senator John McCain has called "disturbing and escalatory".
Brent Colburn, a Pentagon spokesman travelling with defence secretary Ash Carter, said the United States was aware of the weapons.
Senator McCain, chairman of the Senate's armed services committee, said the move would escalate tensions but not lead to conflict.
"It is a disturbing development and escalatory development, one which heightens our need to make the Chinese understand that their actions are in violation of international law and their actions are going to be condemned by everyone in the world," he said at a news conference in Ho Chi Minh City.
Chinese dredging vessels in South China Sea
Photo: The US Navy has released footage purporting to show Chinese vessels during outcrops into islands. (Reuters/US Navy)
"We are not going to have a conflict with China but we can take certain measures which will be a disincentive to China to continue these kinds of activities," he said.
In Beijing, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had no information on the weapons.
Chinese ships busy transforming outcrops into islands
US officials said Chinese dredging work had added some 2,000 acres to five outposts in the resource-rich Spratly islands in the South China Sea, including 1,500 acres this year.
It has released surveillance plane footage showing dredgers and other ships busily turning remote outcrops into islands with runways and harbours.
Mr Carter called on Wednesday for an immediate halt to land reclamation in the South China Sea and was expected to touch on the issue of maritime security and freedom of navigation again in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore.
China says the islands are in sovereign Chinese territory.
Pentagon officials said efforts by China and other claimant countries to turn reefs into islands in the Spratlys undermines international law and raises questions about their future plans and intentions.
"It creates an air of uncertainty in a system that has been based on certainty and agreed-upon norms," said Mr Colburn, the Pentagon spokesman.
"So anything that steps outside of the bounds of international law we see as a concern because we don't know what the ... motivations are behind that. We think it should concern everyone in the region."
Asian military attaches and analysts said the placement of mobile artillery pieces appeared to be a symbol of intent, rather than any major development that could tilt any balance of power.
"It is interesting and a point to watch. But it should be remembered they've already got potentially a lot more firepower on the naval ships that they routinely move through the South China Sea," one military attache said.
China claims most of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the vital trade route.
All claimants except Brunei have military fortifications in the Spratlys
Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize
Explore the conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea
Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.
At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups - the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region's best fishing grounds.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 hundred nautical miles from a country's coastline.
Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.
However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines' claims.
China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the 'Nine Dash Map'.
Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.
Vietnam also claims the Spratlys and the Paracels as sovereign territory, extending Vietnam's EEZ across much of the region and bringing it into direct conflict with China.
There have been deadly protests in Vietnam over China's decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.
One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.
EEZ can only be imposed based on boundaries of inhabitable land, and this has prompted all the countries making claims on the region to station personnel, and in some cases build military bases out of the water, to bolster their claim.
Building and protecting these structures has resulted in a series of stand-offs between countries in the region, each with the potential to escalate.
China has been leading the charge with these installations, and has deployed vessels to the region to protect their interests.
Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.
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