New satellite imagery appears to confirm a report earlier this week that China has nearly completed structures intended to house surface-to-air missile systems on its three largest outposts in the disputed Spratly chain of the South China Sea — “part of a steady pattern of Chinese militarization” there.
The imagery, released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), shows structures being installed on Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef — man-made islands dredged by China that are all home to military-grade airfields.
The group said construction on the buildings was believed to have begun between late September and early November last year, with eight of the buildings being constructed on each of the three outposts.
“This indicates they are not reactions to the political cycle in Washington, but rather part of a steady pattern of Chinese militarization,” it said on its website.
Beijing has already sent HQ-9 SAMs with a range of up to 200 km (125 miles) to its outpost on Woody Island in the Paracel chain in the strategic waterway.
The deployment of SAM batteries to the Spratlys further south of the Paracels “would be in keeping with China’s efforts to extend its defense capabilities” throughout its so-called nine-dash line claim to the waters.
“The construction appears to have started in the fall, before the election, so I don’t see this as a direct challenge to the new administration” of U.S. President Donald Trump, said Zack Cooper, a fellow with CSIS. “Instead, this appears to be the continuation of China’s long-term plans to build capabilities in the Spratlys to allow Beijing to exercise more control over the South China Sea, both in peacetime and potentially in wartime.”
China claims most of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
It has built seven man-made islets in the hotly contested Spratlys, with the three boasting military-grade airfields. Beijing has also reportedly added anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further “militarize” the islands.
“In my view, China has a plan for military deployments on all the artificial islands that it is gradually carrying out,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at CSIS. “This is definitely militarization. Xi Jinping never defined what he meant when he said China has no intent to militarize the Spratlys. China clearly views these deployments, including the SAMs, as necessary to defend the islands.”
The AMTI report said the structures on the three islands would grant China several potential advantages.
“Unlike the HQ-9s on Woody Island, which are covered only by camouflage netting, those deployed to the Spratlys would enjoy some protection from the elements, especially corrosive seawater,” it wrote. “With the roofs closed, the shelters would also conceal launchers from view, thwarting overhead surveillance and preventing adversaries from knowing how many launchers (if any) are present at any given time.”
In the event of actual conflict, the structures could also withstand indirect strikes or small weapons fire, the group added.
Asked about the structures at a monthly news conference, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Ren Guoqiang appeared to defend the move.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over relevant islands and reefs in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters,” Ren said. “China has the right to deploy necessary defensive facilities on its territory in accordance with security requirement. It is the legitimate right of a sovereign state.”
The Defense Ministry’s comments echoed similar remarks from the Foreign Ministry a day earlier, in which a spokesman said China was “carrying out normal facility construction, including deploying necessary and appropriate national defense facilities, on its own territory.”
The U.S., meanwhile, has voiced concern over the reports, urging dialogue with regional claimants to the waters and islands.
“We call on China, as well as other claimants, to refrain from taking any steps towards the construction of new facilities, militarization of disputed features, and further land reclamation in the South China Sea, and to commit to resolving disputes peacefully with other claimants,” the State Department said in an emailed statement to The Japan Times. “Militarization of outposts raises tensions, and these recent reports have generated concern among countries in the region. We continue to urge all claimants, including China, to peacefully manage and resolve disputes in accordance with international law.”
Late last week, the United States also sent the Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 1, which includes the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, into the South China Sea for what it called “routine operations.”
China’s Defense Ministry said it was monitoring the Vinson-led operations — the first in the waterway under the Trump administration.
“We are aware of the activities of the USS Carrier Battle Group Carl Vinson in the South China Sea,” the Defense Ministry’s Ren said. “What needs to be stressed is that the constant reinforcement of military deployment in the South China Sea by some countries outside the region goes against the endeavor of regional countries to seek peace and security, and it is not in the interests of the regional countries.”
The carrier strike group has not referred to its operations in the South China Sea as “freedom of navigation” patrols, but last year, U.S. warships conducted several of the operations to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit access in the waters and also to challenge its “excessive maritime claims” there.
Recent media reports have said that the U.S. Navy may be looking to conduct a fresh patrol soon.
Chinese state-run media has lambasted the moves, with the nationalistic Global Times tabloid arguing in an editorial published late Thursday that the U.S. is the greater military threat to peace in the waterway.
“Aren’t U.S. carrier groups’ constant patrols in the South China Sea the most prominent militarization in the waters?” it said in an editorial. “Aren’t the public statements made by the U.S. military, that all its moves were done to warn China, direct military threats? Washington hopes Beijing would grin and bear it. Well, excuse me, China is not that docile.”
The newspaper, known for its hard-line bent, said further U.S. patrols could prompt the deployment of even more advanced weaponry to the islands.
“As long as the U.S. does not carry out provocative moves in the waters, the South China Sea will be peaceful,” the editorial said. “If the U.S. military insists on showing that it is capable of taming the China Dragon, they are bound to see all kinds of advanced Chinese weapons as well as other military deployments on the islands.”