The Trump administration is demanding that China remove all advanced missiles deployed on disputed islands in the South China Sea, the first time such a demand has been made public.
The call to take out the anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles was disclosed in a fact sheet from the State Department on Friday outlining the results of a strategic dialogue between senior U.S. and Chinese officials.
“The United States called on China to withdraw its missile systems from disputed features in the Spratly Islands, and reaffirmed that all countries should avoid addressing disputes through coercion or intimidation,” the statement said.
The Nov. 8 talks were led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis. The Chinese delegation was headed by Communist Party Politburo official and State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe.
The Pentagon disclosed in June that China has fielded advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and electronic jamming equipment on the Spratly Islands, a group of reefs and islets located close to U.S. ally Philippines that China claims as its own territory. Military officials said the missiles threaten U.S. warships and aircraft that have stepped up freedom of navigation operations near the islands in a bid to counter Chinese claims to control over 90 percent of the South China Sea.
The missiles include YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles capable of targeting warships as far as 340 miles away, and HQ-9B long-range, surface-to-air missiles with ranges of up to 184 miles. They are stationed on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratlys, effectively creating a buffer zone around the entire area. Electronic jammers were deployed on Fiery Cross and Mischief reefs.
China also in recent months deployed strategic nuclear-capable H-6 bombers to Woody Island in the Paracel Islands for the first time.
The commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, has said the missiles pose a “substantial challenge” to U.S. military operations in the region.
Tensions remain high between Washington and Beijing. The U.S.-China talks followed a Sept. 30 incident in the South China Sea when a Chinese destroyer tried to force the USS Decatur, a guided-missile destroyer, from sailing near the Spratlys. The Chinese ship came within 45 yards of the Decatur, causing it to change course to avoid a collision.
U.S.-China military ties recently soured when the State Department imposed sanctions on Lt. Gen. Li Shangfu, a senior member of the Central Military Commission and director of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Equipment Development Department, which is in charge of weapons procurement. The sanctions were aimed at punishing China for buying aircraft and other weapons from Russia in violation of American sanctions.
The PLA also called off talks scheduled to be held in Beijing last month and blocked a U.S. warship from visiting Hong Kong.
The contentious issue of removing the missiles was not mentioned during the post-talks press conference. Mr. Pompeo indirectly alluded to the issue when he told reporters that “I was clear, for example, that we have continued concern about China’s activities and militarization in the South China Sea. We pressed China to live up to its past commitments in this area.”
Mr. Mattis said the two sides discussed “the importance for all military, law enforcement, and civilian vessels and aircraft, including those in the PLA Navy, the Chinese Coast Guard, and the PRC Maritime Militia, to operate in a safe and professional manner, in accordance with international law” — a reference to the Chinese harassment of the Decatur.
Mr. Yang, a member of the ruling Communist Party Politburo, denied the Chinese were militarizing the islands and contended the area is “indisputable” Chinese territory.
He acknowledged at the press conference that China has built some facilities on islands and reefs in the South China Sea but insisted most were civilian.
“At the same time, it is necessary for China to build certain security facilities in response to possible threats from outside,” Mr. Wang said. “We believe that no country should use any excuse to engage in militarization in the region. Actually, to pursue militarization in the region will not only undermine interest of regional countries, but will hurt the countries who take these actions themselves.”
The comment by Mr. Yang contradicted the statement of Chinese President Xi Jinping who in September 2015 promised during a visit to Washington that China would not militarize the disputed islands. The Chinese Party official said there is no problem of freedom of navigation or overflight being restricted, “so to use the freedom of navigation and overflight as an excuse to pursue military actions is unjustifiable.”
Hypersonic missile boom
Ultra-high speed missiles being developed by China, Russia and the United States are at risk of being proliferated to other nations, according to a report by the defense firm RAND Corp.
To prevent the spread of hypersonic missiles that can travel at speeds up to five miles a second, the report suggests creating new arms agreements to limit the exports of the missiles.
“If hypersonic missiles spread into the international market, the existing threats posed by ballistic and cruise missiles would be compounded,” the report said.
A hypersonic missile attack would take place with very little warning. That increases the danger that nations like North Korea or a future nuclear-armed Iran would conduct “launch on warning” — retaliatory attacks carried out before an enemy missile hits.
“In short, hypersonic threats encourage hair-trigger tactics that would increase crisis instability,” the report said.
China is a major arms proliferator and has shared nuclear weapons and missile technology with several foreign states, including Pakistan and North Korea. Russia has been less willing to sell advanced weaponry abroad but has also done so in the past.
NATO on INF violations
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently criticized Russia for violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in what is viewed as the strongest statement to date by a NATO leader on Moscow’s noncompliance. President Trump announced recently the United States will pull out of the Cold War arms accord as a result of Russian violations.
Mr. Stoltenberg said in a remarks Nov. 12 that the 1987 INF accord led to the dismantling of an entire class of intermediate-range nuclear missiles targeting Europe, and was “a cornerstone of arms control in Europe.”
“The deployment of new Russian missiles is putting this historic treaty in jeopardy,” he said. “For years, Russia has developed, produced, tested and fielded a new missile system: The SSC-8. These missiles are mobile; they are hard to detect; they can be nuclear-armed; they reduce warning time to minutes; they lower the threshold for nuclear conflict. And they can reach European cities like Berlin.”
Mr. Stoltenberg said that NATO members allies have raised their concerns “time and again” with the Russians over the new deployment, more than 30 times in recent years in total.
After years of denying the violation, Russia has acknowledged fielding the new illegal missiles, while the United States is in full compliance.
“So while there are no new U.S. missiles in Europe, there are new Russian missiles,” he said. “The new Russian missile system poses a serious risk to the strategic stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.”
The NATO chief said the alliance does not intend to deploy new nuclear missiles in Europe. But the alliance is committed to the safety and security of the region and must “not allow arms control treaties to be violated with impunity because that undermines the trust in arms control in general,” he said.
“So we call on Russia to ensure compliance, and to return to constructive dialogue with the United States.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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