Feb. 24 (UPI) — China has built structures to house surface-to-air missile systems at three outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands, according to a U.S. think tank.
Satellite images of the islands analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies show Beijing may have started construction on the buildings between late September and early November 2016.
The timing of the expansion “indicates they are not reactions to the political cycle in Washington, but rather part of a steady pattern of Chinese militarization,” according to CSIS.
The presence of SAM batteries on the islands would strengthen China’s defense capabilities throughout the nine-dash line, a demarcation line used by China to claim large areas of the South China Sea.
A total of eight buildings have been completed, with each structure measuring about 66 feet in length and 33 feet in width.
“This could allow transporter-erector-launcher vehicles carrying missiles – like the HQ-9 SAM systems China has already deployed on Woody Island [in the Paracels] – stationed within the structures to fire from inside without exposing themselves,” according to CSIS.
The structures allow for better protection of weapons from damaging seawater than in the Paracel Islands, where China’s new-generation midrange missile the HQ-9 has been deployed.
China’s neighbors have raised concerns about the militarization of the islands, but on Thursday Beijing’s state tabloid claimed tensions are being driven by the United States.
The Global Times stated the presence of the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was unsettling the region, adding the U.S.-China relationship “is now at a sensitive point.”
“If the United States does not act provocatively, the South China Sea will be peaceful,” the newspaper article read.