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China Says It Is Not Militarizing Or Attempting To Dominate The South China Sea

China asserts it is not militarizing the South China Sea, despite China’s growing military presence in disputed waters.

China has deployed fighters, surface-to-air missiles, and point-defense systems to contested isles, yet Beijing argues that deploying military equipment into the South China Sea is not militarization.

“China’s facilities, Chinese islands and reefs, are primarily for civilian purposes and, even if there is a certain amount of defense equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation,” Premier Li Keqiang told reporters Friday, using a phrase the U.S. often uses to justify challenging China’s extensive claims. “With respect to the so-called militarization, China never has any intention to engage in militarization in the South China Sea.”

Premier Li’s statements contradict previous comments made by the Chinese foreign ministry.

“If somebody is flexing their muscles on your doorstep, can’t you at least get a slingshot?” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang asked in December. “The necessary military installations are for self-defense and are fair and legal.”

In recent months, observers have detected significant Chinese military buildups in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

“China appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems (CIWS), at each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands,” the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) project, revealed in December.

Three of the islands in the Paracels “now have protected harbors capable of hosting large numbers of naval and civilian vessels. Four others boast smaller harbors, with a fifth under construction at Drummond Island,” the AMTI noted in February. “Five of the islands contain helipads, with Duncan Island housing a full helicopter base. And the largest of the Paracels, Woody Island, sports an airstrip, hangars, and a deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries.”

China has also constructed radar bases, fortified hangars and runways, and military ports, deployed fighters and heavy bombers to the region, and upped its naval presence.

Premier Li did not explain how these developments contribute to “freedom of navigation.”

“China is firmly committed to being on the path of peaceful development,” he said Thursday, adding, “Even when China grows in the future, we will never seek dominance. We stand ready to work … for peace in our region, for maritime navigation freedom and the freedom of overflight.”

The U.S., as well as other regional actors, remain suspicious of China’s ambitions, especially considering China’s efforts to secure control over its claims, which were discredited by an international tribunal last year.

“In the South China Sea, we see China shredding trust,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Wednesday.

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