China has dramatically expanded its military facilities in the South China Sea this year, a report says.
It has built facilities over 290,000 square metres on the Paracel and Spratly Islands. However, its island building has slowed, said the report released on Thursday by Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The report was released as part of its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
New facilities built on the islands include air hangars, air strips, radar and communications facilities, administrative buildings, weapons storage, and shelters for missile platforms.
Most of the structures were raised on Fiery Cross in the Paracels, a group of 13 islands south of China.
China says the artificial islands in the Spratlys with their airstrips and military installations are mainly for civilian purposes and to safeguard fishing and maritime trade. It even installed a light house on one of the South China Sea islands to prove its point.
Early this month, China deployed new military aircraft, including J-11B fighter planes, on Woody Island which is part of Parcels also claimed by Vietnam. Last month, Y-8 transport aircraft believed to be capable of electronic intelligence gathering were spotted there.
China’s activities on Paracels and Spratlys are seen as a move to militarise the region and change its geography to strengthen Beijing’s claims over South China Sea. It is feared that China may use the islands and its military presence there to deny access to strategic routes.
The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim ownership of Paracels and Spratlys. But China says all islands in South China Sea belong to it from time immemorial and it even shows old maps to prove that.
China and the Philippines fought a bitter court battle in the international tribunal in The Hague last year over claims to Spratlys. The court ruled that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.
The ruling was rejected by Beijing. After pro-China President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in the Philippines, Manila has relaxed its claims.