Beijing has nearly finished building air bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea and can deploy combat planes and other military hardware there at anytime, according to a US think tank.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said construction on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands included naval, air, radar and defensive facilities.
AMTI director Greg Poling said satellite images taken this month showed new radar antennas on Fiery Cross and Subi.
“So look for deployments in the near future,” he said.
China has denied US claims that it is militarising the South China Sea, although last week Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said defence equipment had been placed on islands in the disputed waterway to maintain “freedom of navigation”.
Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross declined to comment on the specifics of the AMTI report, saying it was not the Defence Department’s practice to comment on intelligence.
“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,” he said.
AMTI, part of Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said China’s three air bases in the Spratlys and another on Woody Island in the Paracel chain further north would allow its military aircraft to operate over nearly the entire region.
The think tank said China’s advanced surveillance and early-warning radar facilities on the islands and smaller facilities elsewhere gave it similar radar coverage.
It said China had installed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles at Woody Island more than a year ago and had deployed anti-ship cruise missiles there on at least one occasion.
It had also constructed hardened shelters with retractable roofs for mobile missile launchers at Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief and enough hangars at Fiery Cross for 24 combat aircraft and three larger planes, including bombers.
US officials said last month China had finished building almost two dozen structures on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross that appeared designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles.
In recent years, the United States has conducted a series of what it calls freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, raising tensions with Beijing.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which nearly $7 trillion in global trade passes every year.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize
Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.
At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region’s best fishing grounds.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 hundred nautical miles from a country’s coastline.
Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.
However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines’ claims.
China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the ‘Nine Dash Map’.
Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.
Vietnam also claims the Spratlys and the Paracels as sovereign territory, extending Vietnam’s EEZ across much of the region and bringing it into direct conflict with China.
There have been deadly protests in Vietnam over China’s decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.
One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.
EEZ can only be imposed based on boundaries of inhabitable land, and this has prompted all the countries making claims on the region to station personnel, and in some cases build military bases out of the water, to bolster their claim.
Building and protecting these structures has resulted in a series of stand-offs between countries in the region, each with the potential to escalate.
China has been leading the charge with these installations, and has deployed vessels to the region to protect their interests.
Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.