WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said Wednesday that major land reclamation by China at outposts in the South China Sea could allow it to exert more influence over the contested area and deploy military assets such as long-range radar and advanced missile systems.
Adm. Samuel Locklear also told the House Armed Services Committee that Russia has escalated military activity in the Asia-Pacific in recent months to a near Cold War-level.
Locklear's area of command straddles a vast area of land and ocean where the Obama administration has tried to elevate America's presence, and where other major powers jockey for influence. He was addressing a hearing on U.S. military strategy and posture in the region.
In the past year, China has conducted massive land reclamation at previously submerged reefs in the South China Sea despite a U.S. call for a freeze on such construction to give time for diplomacy to work between China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia.
Locklear said China has aggressive reclamation and construction projects at eight outposts in the Paracel and Spratly island chains, including what appears to be an airfield at Fiery Cross Reef, which is also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. It's one of many disputed, tiny land features in that ocean.
Locklear said the artificial islands would allow China to provide basing and resupply for its large and growing fleet of maritime security vessels. He said China eventually could deploy missiles and radar on them, providing a platform for enforcing an air defense identification zone if it tried to establish one in the South China Sea.
"It allows them to exert basically greater influence over what's now a contested area," Locklear said.
China claims much of the South China Sea, and Beijing has asserted its right to undertake any activity in territories it claims. In late 2013, China unilaterally declared an air defense zone over disputed, Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea. The U.S., Japan and others have refused to recognize the move.
Locklear also noted an increase in Russian military activity in the Asia-Pacific, with long-range maneuvers toward the U.S. in the past few months. He said Russia is improving its strategic nuclear deterrent on its east coast in the northern Pacific, and its submarine forces, which operate in the Arctic and in Northeast Asia.
He said there was a greater Russian military presence in Southeast Asia this year, too.
U.S. ally Japan said Wednesday that the number of scrambles by its warplanes has surged to levels nearly matching the Cold War era amid growing activity by China and Russia.