China appears to have installed anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons on its man-made islands in the strategically vital South China Sea, a US security think-tank has said.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a report that the anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems designed to guard against missile attack have been placed on all seven of China’s newly created islands.
The outposts were built in recent years over objections by the US and rival claimants by piling sand on top of coral reefs, followed by the construction of military grade 10,000ft airstrips, barracks, lighthouses, radar stations and other infrastructure.
CSIS based its conclusions on satellite images taken in mid-to-late November and published on the website of its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
China’s defence ministry repeated that development on the islands was mainly for civilian purposes, but added that defensive measures were “appropriate and legal”.
“For example, were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready even a slingshot?” the ministry statement said.
The Philippines, which has troops and villagers stationed on some reefs and islands near China’s new artificial islands, expressed concern despite recently improving relations with China.
“If true, it is a big concern for us and the international community who uses the South China Sea lanes for trade,” defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
“It would mean that the Chinese are militarising the area, which is not good.”
China’s new island armaments “show that Beijing is serious about defence of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea,” CSIS experts wrote in the report.
“Among other things, they would be the last line of defence against cruise missiles launched by the US or others against these soon-to-be-operational air bases,” the report said.
Beijing said the islands are intended to boost maritime safety in the region while downplaying their military utility. They also mark China’s claim to ownership of practically the entire South China Sea.
Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim territory in the waterway through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year, while the US Navy insists on its right to operate throughout the area, including in waters close to China’s new outposts.