The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, announced this week that China has largely completed construction of military installations on the artificial islands the nation has constructed in the South China Sea.  According to their report, China may begin deploying military equipment and personnel to the islands at any time.

According to AMTIs report on the islands called Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs, China’s completed projects include naval, air, radar and defensive facilities.

Satellite images taken earlier this month clearly showed what appear to be newly installed radar antennae on both Fiery Cross and Subi, prompting Greg Poling, AMTI’s director to state, “So look for deployments in the near future.”

The South China Sea has become a hotly contested region, with opposing claims over the waterway being levied by nearly every nation with a shoreline abutting it.  No nation has been more aggressive over their claims, however, than China.  China’s claims have rapidly grown to engulf larger and larger swaths of the seaway that not only contains ample fishing and natural resources, but is also used to transport up to a third of all global commerce.

The United States has actively worked to police the international waterway, using its substantial Pacific fleet to continuously counter Chinese expansion.  Their development of man-made islands has brought about a fair amount of posturing between the two nations, with the United States claiming that China has no right to the newly formed land masses, and China continuously bucking against the American presence near their shores.

Chinese officials have chosen not to address the deployment of military equipment and personnel to the islands, but took the opportunity to clearly state that the islands belong to China, and China plans to deal with them any way that they see fit.

“As for China deploying or not deploying necessary territorial defensive facilities on its own territory, this is a matter that is within the scope of Chinese sovereignty,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a daily news briefing earlier this week.

The United States did not make an official statement regarding AMTI’s report, claiming that the Defense Department doesn’t make a practice of commenting on intelligence it gathers.  Commander Gary Ross, a spokesman for the Pentagon, did however address the Chinese presence on the islands more indirectly.

“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.” Ross told reporters.

The introduction of three Chinese military air strips on the man-made islands dramatically increases China’s ability to patrol and engage enemy forces throughout the entirety of the South China Sea – an important asset if China begins trying to enforce their claims over the majority of the waterway.  Early-warning radar installations installed on the islands also provide the Chinese with a radar footprint that engulfs the majority of the region.

Other facilities cited in the report have been included in previous intelligence, including hardened shelters with retractable roofs intended to house mobile missile launchers and sufficient hangar space on Fiery Cross to house at least twenty-four combat aircraft and three larger planes, such as bombers.  Twenty-four structures intended to house long-range surface-to-air missiles have also been spotted on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross.

In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on the United States to develop a contingency strategy intended to limit Chinese access to the militarized islands, but no official statement has been made about the development of such a plan.


Image courtesy of Reuters