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China to secure 'de facto' control of South China Sea: US admiral

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China is on its way to securing "de facto" control of the South China Sea, a top US admiral warned on Thursday, amid growing unease over Beijing's continued military build up in the contested waterway.

[WASHINGTON] China is on its way to securing "de facto" control of the South China Sea, a top US admiral warned on Thursday, amid growing unease over Beijing's continued military build up in the contested waterway.

By building air bases and hardened bunkers on tiny islands, some of which are reclaimed from the sea, and by installing sophisticated radar and missile defense systems, China has shown it is determined to achieve military primacy in the region, Admiral Harry Harris said.

Beijing's claims to almost all of the South China Sea are widely disputed and the body of water has long been viewed as a potential flashpoint.

"If China continues to arm all of the bases they have reclaimed in the South China Sea, they will change the operational landscape in the region," Adm Harris told Pentagon reporters.

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"Short of war with the United States, China will exercise de facto control of the South China Sea." Adm Harris, who heads up US Pacific Command, visited the Pentagon for several hearings in Washington in which he warned lawmakers about the pace of China's maritime militarisation.

China is using dredgers to turn reefs and low-lying features into larger land masses for runways and other military uses to bolster its claims of sovereignty in the region.

Satellite imagery released this week shows Beijing is installing radar facilities on its artificial islands.

China has also deployed surface-to-air missiles and lengthened a runway to accommodate fighter jets on one such islet, Woody Island, in the Paracels.

The South China Sea is a vital waterway through which trillions of dollars of cargo flows each year, more than US$1 trillion of it destined for the United States, Harris said.

Defence Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday said China's military work in the South China Sea was increasingly spurring regional neighbours to oppose Beijing.

"Chinese behaviour is having the effect of self-isolation, and it's also galvanising others to take action against it," Mr Carter told lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee.

Mr Carter said other nations in the region are responding by stepping up their own maritime defence activities and aligning themselves with the United States.

"Old allies, like Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines, and then new partners, like Vietnam and India, that are working with us increasingly," he said.

Adm Harris told lawmakers earlier this week that the United States would increase its "freedom of navigation" operations - in which a US warship sails within 12 nautical miles of islets claimed by China - as a way of rebutting its assertions of sovereignty.

AFP

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