China appears to have installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, a US think tank says, citing new satellite imagery.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said its findings come despite statements by the Chinese leadership that Beijing has no intention to militarise the islands in the strategic trade route, where territory is claimed by several countries.
AMTI said it had been tracking construction of hexagonal structures on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratly Islands since June and July.
China has already built military length airstrips on these islands.
“It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defence fortifications already constructed at China’s smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron reefs,” it said, citing images taken in November and made available to Reuters.
“This model has gone through another evolution at [the] much-larger bases on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs.”
Satellite images of Hughes and Gaven reefs showed what appeared to be anti-aircraft guns and what were likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) to protect against cruise missile strikes, it said.
AMTI said covers had been installed on the towers at Fiery Cross, but the size of platforms on these and the covers suggested they concealed defence systems similar to those at the smaller reefs.
“These gun and probable CIWS emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defence of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea,” it said.
“Among other things, they would be the last line of defence against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against these soon-to-be-operational air bases.”
‘Prepping for future conflict’
AMTI director Greg Poling said AMTI had spent months trying to figure out what the purposes of the structures was.
“This is the first time that we’re confident in saying they are anti-aircraft and CIWS emplacements,” he said.
“We did not know that they had systems this big and this advanced there.
“This is militarisation. The Chinese can argue that it’s only for defensive purposes, but if you are building giant anti-aircraft gun and CIWS emplacements, it means that you are prepping for a future conflict.
“They keep saying they are not militarising, but they could deploy fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles tomorrow if they wanted to,” he said.
China has said military construction on the islands will be limited to necessary defensive requirements.