China opened weather observation stations on three of its artificial islands in the South China Sea on Wednesday, according to state media. They are located on the Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the contested Spratly Islands, where China has reclaimed several square kilometres of land and installed a number of military and civilian facilities. The new stations could also be used for military purposes, but Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a press briefing on Thursday that they would mainly be used to ensure navigational safety in the South China Sea. “The facilities will enable China to better provide public services to nations across the South China Sea,” he said. The stations include equipment for basic ground and atmospheric observation as well as weather radars, which can be used together for constant monitoring of meteorological indicators, state broadcaster CCTV reported. “This fills a gap, with weather observation now covering the Spratly archipelago and its surrounding waters,” the report said. Amid South China Sea tensions, what will the meeting between the US and China’s defence chiefs yield? Data collected by the stations will be used to provide more precise weather forecasts for the crews on fishing vessels and other ships in the region, it added. Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea – one of the world’s busiest waterways with about US$3 trillion of goods passing through every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have conflicting claims to the area. China previously planned to build a weather station on the Spratlys back in 1987, with navy personnel trying to set up a weather and maritime observation facility on Fiery Cross Reef when it did not control any part of the area. It led to a skirmish with the Vietnamese navy the following year. Scores of Vietnamese died and the confrontation marked the start of the Chinese occupation of the Spratly reefs. US promises to continue South China Sea patrols to show opposition to ‘illegitimate’ claims More recently, from 2013 to 2016, China has carried out massive land reclamation on seven reefs it controls in the area – of which Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross are the biggest. Since then, it has built facilities on the man-made islands including airports that can handle passenger aircraft as big as Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s, docks for large ships, lighthouses, telecoms and solar power stations, water desalination plants, hospitals, agricultural and even sports facilities. ‘Prepare for war’, Xi Jinping tells military region that monitors South China Sea, Taiwan People’s Liberation Army troops have also been deployed there, with military radars, hangars, fighter jets and bombers, and ground-to-air and anti-ship missiles all reportedly seen on the artificial islands. The United States has accused China of militarising the South China Sea and frequently sends warships to patrol near the Chinese reefs in freedom of navigation operations.