On Wednesday, senior U.S. defense officials said that China appears to be building structures for housing surface-to-air missiles on its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
In an interview with Reuters, an American intelligence official said that the structures appear to be similar to other installations known to house anti-aircraft missile batteries. "It's not like the Chinese build anything in the South China Sea just to build it . . . so the logical conclusion is that's what they're for," the official said.
If true, the new structures represent the reinforcement of air defense systems that China began installing on seven man-made islands in the Spratly chain last year. In December, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative published satellite photos of new hexagonal structures on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs that were consistent with the design of "point-defense fortifications." AMTI said that China had also installed similar structures at Gaven, Johnson, Hughes and Cuarterton Reefs.
At his regular press briefing on Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang denied that there was anything improper about the construction of "necessary and appropriate national defense installations in [Chinese] territory, a right bestowed by international law to sovereign states.” He reiterated that China claims "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly Islands.
Last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that China's sweeping "nine-dash line" claims to the waters of the South China Sea – including the region surrounding the Spratly chain – had no basis in international law. The Chinese foreign ministry described the ruling as nothing more than a "piece of paper," and China has consistently disregarded it.
The news of reinforced air defense systems on Chinese-occupied islands coincides with the beginning of U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group 1's deployment to the South China Sea. The Chinese foreign ministry responded to the announcement of the naval patrol this week by emphasizing that China "firmly opposes any country's attempt to undermine China's sovereignty and security in the name of the freedom of navigation and overflight."