China, in an early test of US President Donald Trump, has nearly finished building almost two dozen structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that appear designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles, two US officials told Reuters on Wednesday (Feb 22, 2017).
The development is likely to raise questions about whether and how the United States will respond, given its vows to take a tough line on China in the South China Sea.
China claims almost all the waters, which carry a third of the world’s maritime traffic. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims. Trump’s administration has called China’s island building in the South China Sea illegal.
Building the concrete structures with retractable roofs on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs, part of the Spratly Islands chain where China already has built military-length airstrips, could be considered a military escalation, the US officials said in recent days, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It is not like the Chinese to build anything in the South China Sea just to build it, and these structures resemble others that house SAM batteries, so the logical conclusion is that’s what they are for,” said a US intelligence official, referring to surface-to-air missiles.
Another official said the structures appeared to be 20 meters (66 feet) long and 10 meters (33 feet) high.
A Pentagon spokesman said the United States remained committed to “non-militarization in the South China Sea” and urged all claimants to take actions consistent with international law.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday he was aware of the report, though did not say if China was planning on placing missiles on the reefs.
“China carrying out normal construction activities on its own territory, including deploying necessary and appropriate territorial defense facilities, is a normal right under international law for sovereign nations,” he told reporters.
In his Senate confirmation hearing last month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised China’s ire when he said Beijing should be denied access to the islands it is building in the South China Sea.
Tillerson subsequently softened his language, and Trump further reduced tensions by pledging to honor the long-standing US “one China” policy in a Feb 10 telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a December report that China apparently had installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the islands it has built in the South China Sea.
The officials said the new structures were likely to house surface-to-air missiles that would expand China’s air defense umbrella over the islands. They did not give a time line on when they believed China would deploy missiles on the islands.
On Tuesday, the Philippines said Southeast Asian countries saw China’s installation of weapons in the South China Sea as “very unsettling” and have urged dialogue to stop an escalation of “recent developments.”
Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay did not say what provoked the concern but said the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, hoped China and the United States would ensure peace and stability.
The US intelligence official said the structures did not pose a significant military threat to US forces in the region, given their visibility and vulnerability.
Building them appeared to be more of a political test of how the Trump administration would respond, he said.