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 U.S. think tank reported on Wednesday, citing new satellite imagery.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said its findings come despite statements by the Chinese leadership that Beijing has no intention to militarize 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.
AMTI director Greg Poling said AMTI had spent months trying to figure out what the purposes of the structures were.
“This is the first time that we’re confident in saying they are anti-aircraft and CIWS emplacements. We did not know that they had systems this big and this advanced there,” he told Reuters.
“This is militarization. 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.”
The report said the installations would likely back up a defensive umbrella provided by a future deployment of mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) platforms like the HQ-9 system deployed to Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, farther to the north in the South& China& Sea.
The United States has criticized what it called& China’s militarization of its maritime outposts and stressed the need for freedom of navigation by conducting periodic air and naval patrols near them that have angered Beijing.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has also criticized Chinese behavior in the South& China& Sea while signaling he may adopt a tougher approach to& China’s assertive behavior in the region than President Barack Obama.