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Why the U.S. is worried about China’s land grab

April 17, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Tensions among some Asian nations are growing after satellite images showed that China has been building up small islands in a disputed area of the South China Sea. Judy Woodruff talks to retired Adm. Dennis Blair, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, to learn more about the contested area and the U.S. response.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: To help fill in the picture, we turn to retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair. He was the commander of all U.S. military forces in the Pacific from 1999 to 2002. He also served as the director of national intelligence during President Obama’s first term.

Admiral Blair, thank you for being with us.

As we perhaps look at a map again of these islands, tell us, who claims this land, these dots of land, out in the South China Sea?

ADM. DENNIS BLAIR (RET.), Former Commander, U.S. Pacific Command: Virtually all the islands are claimed by multiple countries.

The islands here, the Spratlys, are claimed by four countries, Philippines, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. There are about 100 of those islands, or some of them are just reefs. Some of them are islands. About 45 of them are occupied, but this recent action by China is the most aggressive we have seen, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On what basis is China declaring that it has the claim that no one else does?

ADM. DENNIS BLAIR: It’s interesting, isn’t it?

As you see from that map, China is the farthest away from those islands way down in the southern part of the South China Sea. They claim it based on a very old, very old map that in fact came from nationalist Chinese officials. To put it in context, I would say this is like the United States claiming all the water area of the Caribbean based on the Monroe Doctrine and a Confederate map.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this has clearly not made their friends — or their neighbors in the area happy.

Do you know, can you tell us more about what exactly they’re doing? We have been reading that they’re paving over some of these islands. They’re adding sand, and now they’re paving what appears to be an airstrip capable of handling a military plane.

ADM. DENNIS BLAIR: Right. They have had a lot of big dredges down there for the past — almost a year. They’re dredging up sand and building up land, so that they can have, as you said in your piece earlier, a 10,000-foot runway, which can take most any aircraft, and also has a little harbor there that has piers that ships can come alongside, and then a lot of storage area sheds, and could be petroleum storage and so on.

This would make a very handy little peacetime logistic port, about 1,000 miles from where they have to support their ships and aircraft now, whether they be military or Coast Guard, civilian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the Chinese are saying this is all about weather forecasting and search and rescue.

But what do the neighbors and what is the United States worried about?

ADM. DENNIS BLAIR: Well, the — China has a very expansive view of what the rights of a littoral country are to the territory off its coasts, whether it be the territorial sea, which goes out to 12 miles, or the exclusive economic zones, which go out about 200 miles.

China believes that it should have the notification, it should be notified if others other countries’ military ships are going in there or aircraft. There shouldn’t be any reconnaissance. There shouldn’t be any naval exercises. So, if China were to successfully claim the entire South China Sea, which is what they do claim, and apply their interpretation of the rights of the country, then it would severely restrict the military operations of the United States, Japan, other countries.

So it’s really unacceptable to the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do you see this headed, Admiral Blair? The United States has raised some objections. The countries in the region clearly have. Where is this going?

ADM. DENNIS BLAIR: Well, I think China is being fairly clever, in that they are making their advances in the South China Sea by non-military forces. It’s by Coast Guard vessels, by administrative declaration.

For instance, they have created a city which encompasses — which they say would administer all of the South China Sea. You remember last year they had a drilling rig that went into waters claimed by Vietnam and drilled there for a period of several months. Now they are using these civilian dredges. They have been very careful to keep it below the military level.

But, nonetheless, if they succeed — and they have been much the most aggressive country over the last three or four years in taking these sorts of measures — and if they succeed, they will strengthen their claim to have de facto control over this country and be able to enforce their interpretation of it.

So that’s where China would like it to go. For their part, the claimant countries, the four who are around it, and other countries with an interest like the United States, Japan, Australia, have been, frankly, pretty weak in their response, if their objective was to stop China and have it negotiate peacefully.

China insists that all of these disputes are bilateral, as you would if you were the 800-pound gorilla in there. But I think what all of us must do, including the United States, is to take this into a multilateral forum, where there can be a multilateral adjudication of all of the claims, and pass out the claims to the five countries that are involved in a fair and equitable way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they have certainly managed to get everyone’s attention.

Admiral Dennis Blair, we thank you for talking with us.

ADM. DENNIS BLAIR: You’re welcome, Judy.

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