WASHINGTON - A senior Pentagon official said Thursday that China has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles on land it claims in disputed areas of the South China Sea, marking the first public confirmation of such activities by the U.S. government.
China "has deployed radar systems, anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and has rotated fighter jets through features it claims in the South China Sea," Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said at a Congressional hearing.
Denmark did not say where in the disputed waters China has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles, but he criticized Beijing's "unilateral changing of the strategic landscape of the South China Sea."
"Once completed and outfitted, these facilities will greatly improve China's capabilities to enforce its maritime and territorial claims, and project power further from China's shores," he told the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces at the House Committee on Armed Services.
As part of efforts to show the U.S. resolve to "fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," the U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, based at the U.S. Navy's Yokosuka base near Tokyo, is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea this summer, he said.
Speaking at the same hearing, Colin Willett, deputy assistant secretary of state for multilateral affairs, shared similar views, saying, "Militarized reclaimed outposts will not keep us from transiting and operating in the South China Sea."
"To the contrary, it is creating a greater demand in the region for a strong and sustained U.S. presence," Willett said.
Denmark and Willett urged China to adhere to a ruling that a U.N.-backed tribunal will hand down on July 12 regarding the legitimacy of its claims to almost the whole South China Sea.
"There will be significant international focus on China's and the Philippine's response to the ruling," Willett said, referring to arbitration brought by the Philippines to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
While many experts expect the ruling to be unfavorable for China, Beijing has said it will not accept arbitration on the South China Sea issue.
"An adverse reaction by any party to the arbitral tribunal's decision could become a source of increased tension," Willett said.
Denmark said the ruling "will present an opportunity for those in the region to determine whether the Asia-Pacific's future will be defined by adherence to international laws and norms that have helped keep the peace and enabled it to prosper, or whether the region's future will be determined by raw calculations of power."
In the hearing, the two officials declined to say whether militarization of Scarborough Shoal by China would undermine U.S. national security interests or invoke the mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines.
Manila claims the Chinese-controlled shoal as its territory.
"Scarborough Reef is a disputed feature, and we don't take a position on whose claim is more legitimate," Willett said. "That said, our treaty obligation to the Philippines is absolutely ironclad."
Any move to occupy a currently unoccupied feature or further militarize unoccupied feature is very dangerous and destabilizing, she added.