American officials said China has positioned weaponry on one of the artificial islands it is constructing in the South China Sea, casting doubt on China’s public statements that the reclaimed islands are mainly for civilian use.
The two large artillery vehicles were detected in US surveillance imagery about a month ago. US officials said the artillery was not a threat to US planes or ships, even though it could reach neighbouring islands.
“There is no military threat - but it is about the symbolism,” a US official told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
Pentagon spokesman travelling with Defense Secretary Ash Carter on an 11-day trip admitted that the US was aware of the artillery but refrained from giving out further details, saying it is an intelligence matter, AP reported.
John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee, said China’s actions violated international law and that the US would act to discourage such activities without resorting to conflict.
Speaking at a news conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, McCain said: “It is a disturbing development and escalatory development, one which heightens our need to make the Chinese understand that their actions are in violation of international law and their actions are going to be condemned by everyone in the world.”
“We are not going to have a conflict with China,” he said, “but we can take certain measures which will be a disincentive to China to continue these kinds of activities.”
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had no information on the weapons while in Washington. Chinese embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan reiterated China’s claim that the Nansha Islands (as China refers to the Spratly Islands) are Chinese territory with which China can do what it pleases.
“It needs to be emphasised that the Nansha Islands is China’s territory, and China has every right to deploy on relevant islands and reefs necessary facilities for military defense,” he said, before adding “However, the facilities on relevant islands and reefs are primarily for civilian purposes.”
The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is an archipelago that have no indigenous inhabitants but may contain natural gas and oil reserves. Countries who claim rights over the Spratlys include are Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and China.