(CNSNews.com) - If China continues to arm all of the bases they've reclaimed in the South China Sea...they will change the operational landscape in the region," Admiral Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told a news conference on Thursday.
"And short of war with the United States, they can become -- they can rise to the level of having operational control, tactical control of the waterways and airways in the South China Sea, which today, involves about $5.3 trillion of trade, over a billion of which -- over a trillion of which is destined for the United States.
"There are enormous I.T. infrastructure in the...undersea cables in the South China Sea. It's a principle shipping lane, as we've discussed.
"And I think that, again, short of war with the United States, China will exercise de facto control of the South China Sea, if they are -- if they continue to outfit the bases that they've reclaimed there."
Harris said China, in the past few years, has reclaimed almost 3,000 acres of land from the South China Sea, turning many of the islands into military bases.
"I am of the opinion that they are militarizing the South China Sea," Harris said. "And when they add their advanced fighters to Woody Island, and when -- up in the Paracels -- and when they put their advanced missile systems on the Paracels, and when they build three 10,000-foot runways in the Spratlys on the basis that they've reclaimed -- when they do all of that, they're changing the operational landscape in the South China Sea.
"So, that is what has changed. The United States and our patrols -- military patrols, air and maritime in the South China Sea haven't really changed. We have a consistent presence in the Western Pacific, and we have had that for decades. So, I would say it's China that has changed its behavior."
Harris said the U.S. will continue to "exercise our rights of freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace, and encourage others -- encourage that like-minded network of nations to do the same.
"And I think we must use diplomacy to influence China. And finally, we have to ensure that we continue to modernize that (U.S. military) force, in order to go back to the first element of maintaining a credible combat power."
"But you're not stopping China from militarizing these islands," a reporter told Harris.
"Well, you'd have to ask China why they're not stopping," Harris responded. "I mean, the military component is just one tool in the -- in the tool chest that our national leadership has, so, you know, I think we're doing what we have to do in the military sense.
"There are -- there are many other components of national power that can be and probably will be brought to bear in this."
Harris noted that the U.S. maintains a continuous presence of naval ships in the South China Sea and flies regular surveillance patrols in the region as well. "So, we're there all the time, I would say."
"We must exercise our freedom of navigation, or we risk losing it."