A Washington-based think tank has concluded China has almost finished construction or three man-made islands in the South China Sea, giving it the ability to deploy warplanes and other military weapons on the islands at any time.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analyzed recent satellite photos and found China's construction of aircraft hangers, radar sites, surface-to-air missile shelters and runways has been finished or nearly completed.
“Every country in the region should be deeply worried by this construction,” Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asian expert at CSIS, told VOA.
“If you’re a Southeast Asian fisherman, coast guard, oil and gas exploration ship, etc., then this means that China has the ability and intention to watch every move you make in the South China Sea and intervene wherever and whenever it sees fit,” Poling added.
Poling said the developments should also be “deeply concerning” to world powers such as the United States, Japan, Australia, India and European countries, given China’s historical claims to the area and its commitment to protect it by force if necessary.
The findings appear to support the contention that China's construction on the islands is designed to strengthen its claim of control over most of the South China Sea.
Beijing has constructed seven man-made islands in the South China Sea, drawing strong criticism from other countries.
The report said the construction was done on three of China's largest artificial islands, Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs - all part of the Spratly chain. China claims most or part of the chain, as do Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing defends moves
China's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it was unaware of the think tank's findings, but maintained China has the right to build defensive facilities on its own territory. "I think this is a matter that is within the scope of Chinese sovereignty and it's the self-defense right bestowed by International Law to a sovereign country," said spokeswomen Hua Chunying.
China has previously denied U.S. assertions that it is militarizing the South China Sea, although Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said last week the equipment was placed on the islands to maintain "freedom and navigation."
Beijing has said the islands were built for civilian purposes, particularly to protect ships that transport about $5 trillion worth of goods through the waterway each year.
China has issued reassurances that it will not impede the navigation ships or aircraft in the area, although questions remain about whether they include military ships and aircraft.
China has not confirmed whether it plans to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea as it has already done in the East China Sea.
Such a declaration would require aircraft pilots to identify themselves and disclose their flight plans to Chinese air traffic controllers and follow their instructions.
“China has consistently said that it would do so when the time is right,” Poling said. “These radar and air capabilities mean it could now try to enforce an ADIZ, so it has certainly gotten a big step closer.”
The potential long-term consequences of the installation of missile shelters, radar and other equipment on the islands are far-reaching, Poling said.
“We will soon see a 24-7 Chinese naval, air, coast guard, and paramilitary presence throughout the southern stretches of the South China Sea for the first time.”
Poling predicts Indonesia, Malaysia, and Filipino users of the South China Sea are going start experiencing “the constant pressure” the Vietnamese have endured for decades in spats with China over the sea’s Paracel Islands.
“Run-ins with Chinese forces will become more and more frequent, which means that the next crisis is a matter of “when,” not “if,” Poling said.