China’s military outposts in the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are nearing completion, giving China the ability to project power throughout the region.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, reports that China is close to completing its naval, air, radar, and defense facilities on Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi reefs in the Spratlys.
“Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time,” AMTI explained in its most recent report.
The research group detected the construction of reinforced hangars on all three reefs last August. “Each of the three islets will soon have hangar space for 24 fighter-jets plus 3-4 larger planes,” possibly heavy bombers, AMTI revealed. In February, observers spotted around two dozen structures believed to be silos for long-range surface-to-air missiles.
“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,” AMTI reported in December, and satellite imagery from early February show China establishing multiple military outposts in the Paracel Islands, which will likely play “a key role in China’s goal of establishing surveillance and power projection capabilities throughout the South China Sea.”
China is suspected to already have HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles stationed in the Paracels, and more may soon be deployed to the region. U.S. intelligence officials revealed that hundreds of Chinese surface-to-air missiles were awaiting deployment to the South China Sea, possibly to protect Chinese airstrips, Fox reported in December.
With the completion of its military outposts in the Spratlys close at hand, China may soon move additional military equipment into the region. “Look for deployments in the near future,” Gregory Poling, director of AMTI, told Reuters.
China’s foreign ministry said that while it is not aware of the AMTI’s latest report, it is has the right to place military equipment on what it considers sovereign Chinese territory.
“As for China deploying or not deploying necessary territorial defensive facilities on its own territory,” explained foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, “This is a matter that is within the scope of Chinese sovereignty.” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently said while China is moving military equipment into the South China Sea, it is not “militarizing” the region. “With respect to the so-called militarization, China never has any intention to engage in militarization in the South China Sea,” he argued, 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.”
AMTI asserts that with the outposts in the Paracels and the Spratlys, China could project power across the vast majority of the South China Sea, which China claims despite the fact that its assertions were discredited by an international tribunal last year.
“China’s continued construction in the South China Sea is part of a growing body of evidence that they continue to take unilateral actions which are increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive to the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross told Reuters.
Echoing his earlier statements in Japan, Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently slammed China for “shredding trust” in the disputed South China Sea.
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