China has secretly installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its fortified outposts in the South China Sea, a report said Wednesday, as Beijing seeks to further project power in the disputed waters.
CNBC, citing sources with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence reports, said that the missile platforms had been moved to outposts on the Spratly group of islands within the past 30 days. Such a deployment would be the first to the Spratlys, which are located some two-thirds of the way east from southern Vietnam to the southern Philippines. Several Asian nations, including Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, have rival claims there.
If confirmed, the placement of the defensive weapons would come on the heels of China’s recent installation in the South China Sea of military jamming equipment, which disrupts communications and radar systems.
According to the report, China has deployed the anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef. The land-based YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles allow China to strike surface vessels within 295 nautical miles (545 kilometers) of the reefs, while the long-range HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles can target aircraft, drones and cruise missiles and are believed to have a range of 160 nautical miles (300 kilometers).
Satellite images have shown that China has also deployed HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island, its military headquarters on the nearby Paracel Islands, which are also part of the South China Sea.
“China’s activities in the Paracels are clearly a blueprint for their plans in the Spratlys,” said Bonnie Glaser, who heads the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “Both anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9 surface to air missiles have been deployed on a rotational basis to Woody Island.”
Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which $3 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
It has also built seven man-made islets in the Spratlys, with three — Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs — all boasting military-grade airfields, despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further militarize them.
China’s Defense Ministry has said the moves are “the natural right of a sovereign nation” and “help safeguard national sovereignty and security,” while also serving “to ensure regional peace and stability.” It has said the moves “are not directed at any country.”
While global attention has been fixated on the North Korean nuclear crisis since early last year, China has further fortified its man-made outposts in the disputed South China Sea in a bid to create fully functioning air and naval bases, according to experts.
It has completed or is close to completing a number of structures, including administrative buildings, improved hangars, missile shelters, underground storage areas, and large radar and sensor arrays.
“I think the Chinese know that the regional states and outside powers, including the U.S., are expecting such deployments and have discounted them already,” said Glaser. “They calculate that the reaction will be relatively moderate and will not undermine Chinese interests. All attention is riveted on North Korea.”
Glaser said the next step in the chain would likely be the deployment of Chinese fighter jets to the three big islands on a rotational basis, as well as military exercises involving assets deployed on the islands.
China has used its increasingly potent military to show that it refuses to be pushed around in its own back yard. It has flown heavy bombers for “combat air patrols” over the contested waters in recent months, part of what it calls “routine” flights in the strategic waterway.
Last month U.S. Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, the expected nominee to replace outgoing U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, described China’s increased presence in the South China Sea as “a substantial challenge to U.S. military operations in this region.”
In written testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Davidson said the development of China’s forward operating bases in the hotly contested waters appear to be complete.
“The only thing lacking are the deployed forces. Once occupied, China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania,” Davidson wrote. “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.