Admiral Harry Harris, commander of United States forces in the Pacific, told the Senate this week that America should send patrol ships to sail close to Chinese-built artificial islands in a move that would challenge China’s current claim to this territory thereby. The comments by Admiral Harris came just one week before Chinese president Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit the White House.
Harris revealed to the Senate that China was building three airfields on the artificial islands and that the country’s additional militarization was a significant concern and a possible threat to all countries in the area.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated that China was not happy with Harris’ statements and acknowledged that China opposed “any country challenging China’s sovereignty and security in the name of protecting freedom of navigation.” He further stated that, “We demand that the relevant country speak and act cautiously, [and] earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and security interests, and not take any risky or provocative acts.”
When Harris was questioned by Senate members as to why the United States should sail within so close to the artificial islands - and thus angering China - he replied that, “I believe that we should exercise - be allowed to exercise, freedom of navigation and flight - maritime and flight - in the South China Sea against those islands that are not islands.” Specifically addressing the 12-mile issue, he stated that, “Depending on the feature. Conducting that kind of . . . freedom-of-navigation operation is one the operations we’re considering.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Senator John McCain, expressed his disdain that the Obama administration has failed to challenge China by not yet sailing within 12 miles of the artificial islands. He stated that by this inaction, the United States was essential providing de facto recognition of the Chinese claims to these islands.
McCain further pointed out that the United States should sail close to these islands after China recently sent ships within 12 nautical miles of the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska last week.
Harris acknowledged that China was in the process of building 3,000-yard runways on the manmade islands. “They’re also building deep-water port facilities there, which could put their deep-water ships, their combatant ships there, which gives them an extra capability.”