Satellite images ‘show Beijing has built weapons on all its artificial islands in South China Sea’

US think tanks says advanced systems installed mean Beijing ‘could deploy fighter jets and missiles tomorrow if they wanted’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 3:23am

China appears to have installed weapons on all seven of the artificial islands it built in the South China Sea, according to satellite images released by a US-based think tank, suggesting Beijing may be stepping up preparation for conflict in the disputed waters.

China has repeatedly promised it will not militarise the man-made islands and yesterday said its construction activities were legitimate.

“The necessary military facilities are mainly for self-defence. It is legitimate,” the defence ministry said in a statement posted ­online. “When someone is flexing muscles at your doorstep, wouldn’t you prepare a ­slingshot?”

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in the US said it had been tracking for months construction of hexagonal structures on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratly Islands, where China has already built military-length airstrips. Satellite images captured in November of Hughes and Gaven reefs showed what appeared to be anti-aircraft guns and what were likely to be close-in weapons systems for protection against cruise missile strikes, the centre said.

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Michael McDevitt, a retired admiral with the Centre for Naval Analyses in the United States, said the images gave “every impression of being a land-based attempt to put close-in weapon systems that you’d normally find on a naval ship on a concrete superstructure”. The hexagonal shape might be more resistant to cruise missile damage, he said.

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Song Zhongping, a military commentator for Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television, said the hexagonal structures were part of the PLA’s military facilities to defend the security of the artificial islands.

“There are long airstrips for both military and civilian aircraft on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs, so it’s necessary for China to build military defensive facilities such as radar and missile systems,” Song said.

AMTI said the installations would likely provide backup for a defensive umbrella consisting of the deployment of mobile surface-to-air missile platforms such as the HQ-9 system, which has already been deployed to Woody Island in the Paracels, farther to the north.

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But experts differ on how such moves could affect the region. Cortez Cooper, of the RAND Corporation in the US, said the question was “what military capability these additional assets mean for the People’s Liberation Army in a contingency or a crisis”.

Collin Koh Swee Lean, a maritime security expert at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore, said the facilities could enhance Beijing’s physical control over the South China Sea. But “these moves would only be useful in times of peace, but practically of little utility if a full-scale shooting war breaks out”.

AMTI director Greg Poling said it appeared China was militarising the disputed waters.

“The Chinese can argue that it’s only for defensive purposes, but if you are building giant anti-aircraft gun and [close-in weapons systems] emplacements, it means that you are prepping for a future conflict,” he said.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hinted that the US, which has carried out patrols near the islands, was the nation engaging in militarisation.

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan, Kristin Huang and Reuters