China’s proposed creation of an air-defense zone would be viewed by the United States and Southeast Asian nations as a huge provocation.
BEIJING — A Chinese admiral said Sunday that Beijing could set up an air-defense zone above disputed areas of the South China Sea if it believed it was facing a large enough threat, according to Chinese news media.
Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told a regional security forum in Singapore that China had not said it would definitely create a so-called air-defense identification zone, but that any decision would be based on an aerial threat assessment and the general security situation.
The creation of an air-defense zone would be viewed by the United States and Southeast Asian nations as a huge provocation. In recent years, foreign officials have speculated whether one of China’s next moves in the South China Sea would be to set up such a zone, whose existence would further solidify China’s military presence in the waters.
In November 2013, to the dismay of Japan and the United States, China declared an air-defense identification zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea. Chinese military aircraft began requiring all other aircraft flying through the zone to identify themselves.
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Commercial airliners complied, though the United States sent B-52 bombers through the zone without advance warning to challenge Beijing.
In late May, Chinese officials told the United States to stop sending surveillance flights near land formations China claims as its territory. U.S. officials say the flights had taken place over international waters.
Sun’s remarks came at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore.
As at previous such meetings, much of the focus of the conference, which ended Sunday, was on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations all have competing claims to waters, islands, reefs, shoals and sandbars.
In recent weeks, the United States has criticized China for island-building and land-reclamation efforts on disputed reefs and atolls that were uninhabited until recently.
Ash Carter, the U.S. defense secretary, used his address to the security conference Saturday to reiterate a demand for China and other nations to stop such island-building. The United States has said China is building much faster than any other nation and has completed 2,000 acres of land reclamation in the past 18 months.
Vietnam and the Philippines have built structures on some land formations, but much of that construction took place before 2002, when China and rival claimants to territory signed a nonbinding agreement to cease any provocative activity in the region.
About a month ago, the U.S. military saw a pair of mobile artillery vehicles on one of the new islands, but those soon vanished, U.S. officials said last week. China has said its islands will be used for maritime aid as well as military defense.
“China and the Chinese military have never feared the devil or an evil force, and we are convinced by reason but not by hegemony,” Sun said Sunday, according to a transcript of his speech posted by the Chinese Defense Ministry. “Don’t ever expect us to surrender to devious heresies or a mighty power. And don’t ever expect us to swallow the bitter fruits that would harm our sovereignty, security and development interests.”
He added that the United States was guilty of hypocrisy, since it had criticized China’s military deployment on the islands while its officials had, at the same time, said they would bring weapons of their own to bear on the regional situation.
China has maintained that its right to construction is based on its understanding that the territory belongs to China. On Saturday, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, released a long rebuttal to Carter’s statements.
Sun said Sunday the situation in the South China Sea had been “peaceful and stable” and that there was no problem with freedom of navigation in the sea.
In May 2014, China placed an exploratory oil rig near the Vietnamese coast and off the shores of the Paracel Islands, land formations also claimed by Vietnam. That prompted daily clashes between Chinese coast guard vessels and Vietnamese boats, along with deadly rioting in Vietnamese cities against factories perceived to have Chinese owners and workers.
In a possible sign of the growing importance of the Chinese navy, Sun was the first naval officer appointed by Beijing to lead its delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue since China began attending in 2007.
Sun, 63, is the only naval officer in the eight-person leadership of the People’s Liberation Army general staff headquarters, which oversees the navy. He joined the navy at age 16, when he began a decade of training at the main submarine college. He then served for many years as a captain of both conventional and nuclear submarines, earning the nickname Iron Captain.
In 1985, he commanded a crew for a voyage of 90 days straight on a nuclear submarine, breaking a record held by the U.S. Navy, according to a report on the website of The People’s Daily, the flagship Communist Party newspaper. He was promoted to the rank of admiral in 2011.
Sun’s submarine background dovetails with the growing emphasis of the Chinese military on open-water force projection. On Tuesday, China’s military issued a strategy paper, its first in two years, that said it would project naval power in the open ocean in addition to defending coastal waters.
As Sun was speaking, Carter left Singapore for Vietnam, where he spent the afternoon in Haiphong, the port city that is home to the country’s naval and coast-guard headquarters. Carter went aboard a Vietnamese coast-guard ship.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Carter said the United States and Vietnam would Monday sign a joint vision statement to ”modernize” their growing ties. He added that the United States was also planning to give Vietnam $18 million to help purchase patrol boats.
Carter said he also would discuss with Vietnamese officials a U.S. proposal for all the countries claiming territory in the South China Sea that would halt all land-reclamation efforts.