China’s airfields on Spratlys meant for fighter jets – US

Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – A senior US State Department official yesterday disputed China’s claims that the airstrips built on its artificial islands in the South China Sea were meant for flights for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Colin Willet, US deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said what China has been doing in the region was to outstrip all other claimants.

“The runways they’ve built are designed to accommodate strategic bombers, not cargo planes for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Willet told a group of journalists in a teleconference from the US embassy in Manila.

While it is true that other claimant countries have deployed military personnel and weapons on their outposts, Willet said, these are small compared to what China has been doing for the last two years.

There were also reports China has installed an anti-air defense system over its man-made islands at Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Zamora (Subi) and Panganiban (Mischief) reefs.

The three former obscure maritime outcrops are now home to newly built runways.

Beijing also installed missile batteries over its occupied Woody Island in the Paracel island group located north of the Spratlys.

“Frankly, what’s going on here is far more than simply catching up. What China is doing vastly outstripped what all other claimants have done over the past several decades,” Willet said.  

“When countries place weapons on their outposts and transform them into what can only be described as military bases, it sets the stage for others to follow suit and raises the risk of conflict as well as the prospect of a diplomatic solution,” the state department official said.

China maintains its land reclamation activities in the region are not aimed at militarizing the area but for civilian purposes.

“We simply don’t need these type of facilities to protect civilians, or assist distressed fishermen or monitor the weather,” Willet said.

On China’s moves of restricting freedom of navigation and overflight over the disputed region, she said it is also causing a lot of concern, as this is a clear violation of international law.

“While China has pledged to protect freedom of navigation, we still see radio operators challenging foreign ships and planes that are operating in the area, warning them to stay away,” she said.

Willet pointed out that US ships and planes have been sailing and flying over the region for decades to protect freedom of navigation and overflight.

She also pointed out that when the US conducts freedom of navigation, it is not meant at militarizing the region as China had claimed, but for the protection of navigation rights of all seafaring nations in order to ensure that they can all exercise this right, including China. – With Helen Flores, Ric Sapnu, Rainier Allan Ronda

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