By COLIN CLARK
on February 23, 2016 at 11:34 AM
Adm. Harry Harris Pacific Command
WASHINGTON: The gloves came off during today’s Senate Armed Services committee hearing on China and North Korea with Pacific Command’s Adm. Harry Harris saying that China seeks “hegemony in East Asia” and is unequivocally militarizing the South China Sea.
“In my opinion, China is clearly militarizing its position in the South China Sea. You’d have to believe in a flat earth to believe otherwise,” Harris told the committee this morning. But Chinese president Xi Jinping continues to claim that China is not militarizing the South China Sea, even though his regime is violating international law by building these islands in the first place, are building military-length runways on them and are stationing missiles and advanced radar sets on them.
Until very recently, US military officials were at pains to characterize China as a sometimes challenging partner in international affairs, one they characterized as a rising peer competitor but never as an opponent or an enemy. Saying China wants to be a hegemon — which is what China denounced the United States as for much of the last 50 years — comes perilously close to characterizing China as an opponent. Harris’ comments are not there yet, but we are edging closer to a Cold War in the Pacific.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies issued this detailed assessment of the situation yesterday:
“This month’s deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels, while notable, does not alter the military balance in the South China Sea. New radar facilities being developed in the Spratlys, on the other hand, could significantly change the operational landscape in the South China Sea. And along with the development of new runways and air defense capabilities, they speak to a long-term anti-access strategy by China—one that would see it establish effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the South China Sea.”
China, of course, blames the United States for militarizing the South China Sea because we are executing legal Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) such as flying over the fake Chinese islands and sailing near them.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters Saturday that those US actions, combined with exercises involving regional partners, were the reasons the sea is being militarized. China is really only trying to help the world by building these islands, putting up lighthouses, building military-length runways, stationing missiles and advanced radar sets on them and claiming they are sovereign China territory — although international law says otherwise.
“The above actions have escalated tensions in the South China Sea, and that’s the real militarization of the South China Sea,” Hong said.
Since China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in town today, and Adm. Harris doubtless knows this, you can take his comments as a direct shot at the Chinese claims to only safeguarding their rightful territorial claims.
Harris also restated the US intention to “routinely” execute Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea.
One other very interesting tidbit surfaced during today’s hearing when Sen. Kelly Ayotte pressed Harris about a gap in US attack submarine capabilities. Harris confirmed that the US can only meet 62 percent of the requests for attack submarines from commanders and that this particularly affects the Pacific theater. “My requirements are not being met,” Harris told Sen. Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut, who followed up on Ayotte’s question. “That’s a function of global demands.”
Ayotte, who hails from New Hampshire where the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard sits, was particularly interested in shortfalls in attack submarines. They are, of course, maintained and overhauled at Portsmouth. Blumenthal’s state, Connecticut, is home to the Electric Board yard where both new Virginia-class attack subs and — in the near future — new ICBM submarines, known as boomers, are built.