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China’s man-made islands in disputed waters raise worries

WASHINGTON – China is rapidly building five man-made islands from tiny reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, U.S. officials say, sparking concern that Beijing is growing more assertive in the disputed waters even as the United States boosts its own forces in the western Pacific.

Dredging around Fiery Cross Reef, a former outcropping in the Spratly Islands, over the last year has created a new island nearly two miles long and several hundred yards wide.

U.S. officials say it is large enough for China to build its first airstrip in the remote archipelago, one long enough for most of its combat and support aircraft. Satellite photos also reveal a small port under construction.

U.S. officials worry that the buildup indicates a Chinese push to establish de facto control over the resource-rich waters and islets also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam.

Except for Brunei, those nations all maintain small airstrips or symbolic military outposts in the Spratlys, but the Chinese military dwarfs others in the region and could undermine the tense status quo. Confrontations have broken out over fishing, oil and gas drilling, and military maneuvers in recent years.

India is the latest country to express alarm about Beijing’s growing military clout, partly because the Chinese navy has sent nuclear submarines into the Indian Ocean, rattling New Delhi’s defense community.

During a three-day visit to New Delhi that ended Tuesday, President Obama signed a joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” They urged all parties “to avoid the threat or use of force.”

White House aides portrayed Obama’s trip as a way to emphasize his attempt to focus more military and other resources on Asia and the western Pacific, a pivot intended in part to offset China’s influence. The Pentagon has sent more warships and troops to the region and has forged closer military ties with several of China’s neighbors.

A military-grade airstrip and dredged harbor on Fiery Cross Reef, which lies on the western edge of the Spratly archipelago, clearly would expand China’s ability to operate in an area considered a potential tinderbox. Land reclamation is also underway at Johnson South Reef, Johnson North Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Gaven Reef.

“China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure – including radars, satellite communication equipment, anti-aircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks – on some of the man-made islands,” according to a report last month by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was set up by Congress.

Beijing insists the reclamation projects are an internal matter taking place on Chinese territory, and recently said it needs a base in the South China Sea to support radar and intelligence gathering. It has rebuffed regional demands to submit to international arbitration to resolve the maritime and territorial disputes.

The White House has refused to take sides in the territorial disputes, calling for a halt in all provocative activities. But the Obama administration faces growing pressure from allies to push back any Chinese effort to establish a permanent offshore military presence in the contested area.

Pentagon officials and the State Department repeated those demands in the last week, urging China to halt the island-building projects.