New satellite photography from the South China Sea confirms a nightmare for the US and champions of free navigation everywhere — Beijing has placed reinforced surface-to-air missiles in the Spratly Islands.
For years now, China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea and militarizing them with radar outposts and missiles.
The latest move seems to have been years in the making, so it’s not in response to any particular US provocation, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies‘ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
China previously deployed close-in weapons systems, which often serve on ships as a last line of defence against incoming missiles, and have toggled on and off between positioning surface-to-air missiles on Woody island in the Parcel Islands chain. But this time it’s different, according to CSIS’ Bonnie Glasser, director of the China Power Project.
Satellite imagery shows the new surface-to-air missile sites are deployed in buildings with retractable roofs, meaning Beijing can hide the launchers, and that they’re protected from small arms fire.
Subi Reef, July 24, 2016
Eight buildings are under way on outposts on Subi Reef, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef. The hexagonal structure was last year identified as part of an anti-aircraft, anti-missile system:
Subi Reef, February 7, 2017
Now the outbuildings and what looks to be a silo or tower of some sort have been added. AMTI said the new shelters – the large rectangles – could be closed to conceal launchers and were likely to be able to “withstand indirect strikes or small weapons fire”.
Fiery Cross, January 8, 2016
This corner of an island on Fiery Cross reef was bare dirt a year ago:
Fiery Cross, November 2, 2016
By November, it was covered in structures:
Fiery Cross, February 7, 2017
And now, three of the outbuildings AMTI is concerned about have appeared:
AMTI said each measures 22 metres by 11 metres, which is long enough to conceal and protect vehicles carrying missiles like the HQ-9 SAM systems China has already deployed on Woody Island.
“This will provide them with more capability to defend the island itself and the installations on them,” said Glaser.
Overnight, US president Donald Trump told Reuters he knows “exactly what’s going on between China and North Korea and everybody else”.
“Many things took place (under the Obama administration) that should not have been allowed. One of them is the building of a massive, you know, massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.”
Other nations in the region have also taken notice. Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told reporters that foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) unanimously expressed concern over China’s land grab in a resource-rich shipping lane that sees $US5 trillion in commerce annually.
The move is “very unsettlingly, that China has installed weapons systems in these facilities that they have established, and they have expressed strong concern about this,” Yasay said, according to the South China Morning Post.
But Chinese media and officials disputed the consensus at ASEAN that their militarization had raised alarm, and according to Glaser, without a clear policy position from the Trump administration, nobody will stand up to China.
Currently, the US has an aircraft carrier strike group patrolling the South China Sea, but that clearly hasn’t stopped or slowed Beijing’s militarization of the region, nor has it meaningfully emboldened US allies to speak out against China.
“Most countries do not want to be confrontational towards China … they don’t want an adversarial relationship,” said Glaser, citing the economic benefits countries like Laos and Cambodia get from cooperating with Beijing, the world’s third largest economy and a growing regional power.
Instead, US allies in the Pacific are taking a “wait and see” approach to dealing with the South China Sea as Beijing continues to cement its dominance in the region and establish “facts in the water” that even the US’s most advanced ships and planes would struggle to overcome.
The HQ-9 missile systems placed in the Spratlys resemble Russia’s S-300 missile defence system, which can heavily contest airspace for about 100 miles.
According to Glaser, China has everything it needs to declare an air defence and identification zone — essentially dictate who gets to fly and sail in the South China Sea — except for the Scarborough Shoal.
“I think from a military perspective, now because they have radars in the Parcels and the Spartlys,” China has radar coverage “so they can see what’s going on in the South China Sea with the exception of the northeastern quarter,” said Glaser. “The reason many have posited that the Chinese would dredge” the Scarborough Shoal “is because they need radar coverage there.”
The Scarborough Shoal remains untouched by Chinese dredging vessels, but developing it would put them a mere 160 miles from a major US Navy base at the Subic Bay in the Phillippines.
Installing similar air defences there, or even radar sites, could effectively lock out the US or anyone else pursuing free navigation in open seas and skies.
While Trump has repeatedly floated the idea of being tougher on China, a lack of clear policy has allowed Beijing to continue on its path of militarizing the region where six nations claim territory.
“For the most part, we are improving our relationships. All but one,” Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the commander of US 7th Fleet, said at a military conference on Tuesday.
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