A U.S. think tank said on Monday that China can possibly deploy combat planes and other military hardware at any time as it appears to have largely completed major construction of military infrastructure on artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
The work on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands included naval, air, radar and defensive facilities, said the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The think tank’s director, Greg Poling, said that new radar antennas on Fiery Cross and Subi wee showed in satellite images taken this month and which were cited by the think tank.
“So look for deployments in the near future,” he said.
Even though last week Premier Li Keqiang said defense equipment had been placed on islands in the disputed waterway to maintain “freedom of navigation”, China has denied U.S. charges that it is militarizing the South China Sea.
China’s military aircraft would be allowed to operate over nearly the entire South China Sea, a key global trade route that Beijing claims most of by China’s three air bases in the Spratlys and another on Woody Island in the Paracel chain further north, AMTI said.
The South China Sea, which is widely seen as a potential regional flashpoint has seen several neighboring states putting up competing claims or the region to China’s claim.
Similar radar coverage was given to it by advanced surveillance and early-warning radar facilities at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Cuarteron Reefs, as well as Woody Island, and smaller facilities elsewhere, the think tank said.
China had deployed anti-ship cruise missiles on Woody Island on at least one occasion and had installed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles at Woody Island more than a year ago, the think tank said.
Enough hangars at Fiery Cross for 24 combat aircraft and three larger planes, including bombers and hardened shelters with retractable roofs for mobile missile launchers at Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief have been constructed by China, the think tanks claimed.
Appearing to house long-range surface-to-air missiles, China had finished building almost two dozen structures on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross, U.S. officials had been quotd by the media as saying last month.
By saying it should be denied access to islands it had built up in the South China Sea, new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson angered China during his Senate confirmation hearing in January.
The United States and its allies “must be capable of limiting China’s access to and use of” those islands to pose a threat in the event of an unspecified “contingency,” he said subsequently softening his language.
Tensions with Beijing had been raised in recent years as the United States has conducted a series of what it calls freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.
(Adapted from CNBC)