With the development of what may be missile silos, China appears to be taking another assertive step towards militarizing its defensive outposts in the disputed South China Sea.
China is close to completing around 20 structures likely to house long-range surface-to-air missiles on its outposts in the Spratly Islands, Reuters reports. The new structures could be a continuation of the extensive militarization China has been carrying out in contested seas for years, or these developments may be intentional challenges to the new U.S. administration, members of which have declared Chinese South China Sea activities illegal.
The structures are 66 feet long and 33 feet tall and have retractable roofs. They are located on Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross Reef.
“It is not like the Chinese to build anything in the South China Sea just to build it, and these structures resemble others that house SAM batteries, so the logical conclusion is that’s what they are for,” a U.S. intelligence official told reporters.
U.S. intelligence officials revealed that hundreds of Chinese SAMs were awaiting deployment to the South China Sea, possibly to protect three Chinese airstrips on artificial islands, Fox reported in December. The Chinese military already has HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems stationed in the Paracel Islands. The SAMs detected in Hainan two months ago may soon be deployed to the missile silos under construction in the Spratlys.
“It certainly raises the tension,” Gregory Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, told reporters. “The Chinese have gotten good at these steady increases in their capabilities.”
China asserts that it has the right to construct defenses in the South China Sea.
“China carrying out normal construction activities on its own territory, including deploying necessary and appropriate territorial defense facilities, is a normal right under international law for sovereign nations,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang explained at a regular press conference Wednesday.
China has been steadily increasing its military presence in disputed seas in recent months.
In December, AMTI discovered that China had armed all of its artificial islands in the South China Sea. “China appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems, at each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands,” the research group reported.
Earlier this month, AMTI revealed that China had also militarized its holdings in the Paracels, which “key role in China’s goal of establishing surveillance and power projection capabilities throughout the South China Sea.”
Three of the islands “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. 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,” AMTI explained.
China has secured control of all three corners of the “strategic triangle” in the South China Sea — the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal. China is building an digging in, arming its outposts, and making its position unshakable.
In response to previous criticisms of its defensive construction projects, China said that it is building up its military defenses in response to American muscle flexing.
“If somebody is flexing their muscles on your doorstep, can’t you at least get a slingshot?” Shuang asked in December, making a thinly-veiled reference to U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations. “The necessary military installations are mainly for self-defense and are fair and legal.”
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is on patrol in the South China Sea, putting China on edge as concerns that the U.S. may try to challenge China’s vast claims to the region.
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