BEIJING — China’s most senior uniformed military commander paid a visit in recent days to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the country’s Ministry of National Defense said on Friday.
The commander, Gen. Fan Changlong, appears to have been the highest-ranking People’s Liberation Army officer ever to visit the Spratly group, a sprawling collection of islands that extends close to the Philippines.
Although the details made public about General Fan’s visit were sparse, his tour appeared intended to show China’s determination to ward off any challenges to its claims over the islands, which are also the subject of claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. China calls them the Nansha Islands.
General Fan led a delegation to the “relevant Nansha Islands to offer good wishes to officers and personnel stationed there, and also to understand the construction of facilities on the islands,” said a brief statement from the Ministry of National Defense.
General Fan is a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, the council that runs the People’s Liberation Army forces. He is outranked only by the chairman, Xi Jinping, who is also president of China and head of the country’s Communist Party. Under Mr. Xi, the Chinese military has accelerated efforts to secure domination of islands also claimed by Southeast Asian countries.
The growing reach of the Chinese Navy, and the rival claims of other Asian powers, have turned the Spratlys and other islands across the South China Sea into a volatile mosaic of disputes. In past decades, Chinese military and civilian leaders have visited the Paracel Islands, which are closer to the Chinese mainland.
China claims sovereignty over much of the sea, but it faces not only rival claims from Southeast Asian countries but also growing wariness from Washington and its allies. They say that Beijing is risking a dangerous escalation of regional tensions by expanding barren reefs and outcrops into artificial islands and by installing military outposts, lighthouses, airstrips and other infrastructure on islands under its control.
On Friday, the United States secretary of defense, Ashton B. Carter, visited an American Navy aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, a gesture that seemed likely to draw ire from Beijing. The Chinese government says that Washington should play no part in trying to settle the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and it has criticized operations by United States Navy ships that have passed close by islands controlled by China.
The Obama administration has said those operations are to show that China cannot deny other nations freedom of navigation through waters near islands under its control. China says that its island facilities, including lighthouses and weather stations, serve valuable civilian functions for all countries.
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