China appears to have built up significant anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on all seven of its man-made islands in the South China Sea’s Spratly chain, a U.S. think tank reported Wednesday, citing an analysis of new satellite imagery.
The analysis, by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, comes despite a pledge last year by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to “militarize” the islands in the South China Sea. China claims most of the strategic waterway, through which more than $5 trillion in annual trade passes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims.
China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement posted to its website Thursday that it was “legitimate and lawful” for it to place defensive military installations on islands where it had “indisputable sovereignty.”
“If someone makes a show of force at your front door, would you not ready your slingshot?” it said.
According to the think tank’s report, AMTI said it began tracking the construction of identical, hexagon-shaped structures at the largest artificial islands — Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs — in June and July. All three are home to military-grade airfields and infrastructure.
“It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defense fortifications already constructed at China’s smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron Reefs,” the report said, citing satellite photos taken last month. At the four smaller islands, there appeared to be anti-aircraft guns and what were likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) to defend against cruise missiles, it added.
“This model has gone through another evolution at China’s much-larger bases on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs,” the report said.
“Each of these sports four structures, consisting of tiered hexagonal towers oriented toward the sea,” it said. “They are positioned so that any anti-aircraft guns and CIWS installations placed on them would cover all approaches to the base with overlapping fields of fire.”
While Xi told U.S. President Barack Obama in September 2015 that “China does not intend to pursue militarization,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying admitted the following month that “there certainly are a limited amount of necessary military facilities for defense purposes only.”
Wednesday’s report is likely to have confirmed this view.
“These gun and probable CIWS emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defense of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea,” it said. “Among other things, they would be the last line of defense against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against these soon-to-be-operational air bases.”
In October, the U.S. Navy conducted its fourth “freedom of navigation” challenge in the past year to what Washington says are overreaching maritime claims by Beijing in the South China Sea. The operation was the first known patrol since a July ruling by an international arbitration court invalidated China’s claims to much of the strategic waterway. China blasted the ruling, calling it “waste paper.”
China halted its land-reclamation work last year and began focusing on “infrastructure development” of the islets, a Pentagon report released in May said.
Wednesday’s report said the new weapons systems would likely back up a defensive umbrella provided by the future deployment of mobile surface-to-air missile platforms like the HQ-9 system deployed to Woody Island in the Paracel chain, farther to the north in the South China Sea.
AMTI said that such a deployment could happen “at any time,” noting a recent Fox News report that components for SAM systems had been seen at the southeastern Chinese port of Jieyang, possibly destined for the South China Sea.
Collin Koh Swee Lean, a maritime scholar at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, agreed that the new armaments are likely to be a step toward China deploying anti-ship missiles to the Spratlys.
“In fact, the greater problem doesn’t come from these weapon emplacements but the airstrips and ship-berthing spaces which were built on those features,” Koh said. “These facilitate the rapid deployment of heavier, mobile armaments in times of tensions using a whole range of sea and airlift assets.”
Koh said the new weapons systems could complicate attempts to forestall or mitigate the effects of the militarization of the South China Sea.
“In fact, having these facilities allows Beijing to calibrate its own ladder of escalation in times of crisis,” he said.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has blasted the Chinese moves in the South China Sea and the “one-China” policy over Taiwan. He has also surrounded himself with a number of advisers who are known China hawks.
The U.S. State Department refused comment on the report but reiterated its call to Beijing to halt the militarization of the disputed islands.
“As always, we’ve consistently called on China as well as other claimants to commit to peacefully managing and resolving disputes, to refrain from further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and the militarization of disputed features,” spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing.
Regardless of any U.S. and regional response, China is likely to stick to its guns that it is not militarizing the waters and that the recent moves are defensive in nature.
Instead, said Koh, Beijing is most likely to “point the finger at the U.S. and other extra-regional actors — such as Japan in particular — for undermining South China Sea peace and stability, thus motivating its ‘defensive preparations.’ “
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