Three of Beijing’s outposts in the South China Sea reefs appear to be ready for the deployment of mobile missile launchers, a US think tank has claimed.
Releasing satellite photographs, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said Beijing’s Fiery Cross Reef base in the Spratly Islands now had 12 hardened shelters — four more than in February — with retractable roofs that could house missile launchers.
It also said that at Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reef, China had expanded its communications and radar arrays with multiple radar towers on each.
And new construction of “very large underground structures, four at each reef”, is underway, which AMTI said are likely to be used to house munitions.
“Major construction of military and dual-use infrastructure on the ‘Big Three’ is wrapping up, with the naval, air, radar and defensive facilities that AMTI has tracked for nearly two years largely complete,” the think tank said.
“Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers to the Spratly Islands at any time.”
Washington-based AMTI said the air bases on the islands, and a fourth on Woody Island in the Paracels, allowed Chinese military aircraft to operate over almost the entirety of the contested South China Sea.
In December, AMTI said that large anti-aircraft guns and other defence systems had been installed on the islands.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea despite competing claims from the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
While officially remaining neutral on these claims, the US has warned China against militarising the strategically important waters or threatening international sea lanes.
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “We oppose China’s artificial island construction and their militarisation that features in international waters.”
In May, a US Navy warship sailed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in a so-called freedom of navigation operation. It was the first such challenge to Beijing’s claim to most of the waterway since Donald Trump took office.
Trump is seeking China’s help in reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, and tension between Washington and Beijing over the South China Sea could complicate those efforts.