BEIJING, Dec. 16 (UPI) — Although China has told the Obama administration it did not plan to militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea, officials in Beijing have confirmed what appeared to be weapons in satellite images released earlier this week.
Chinese officials said in response to a U.S. think tank releasing images showing military construction and hardware on the islands in the South China Sea that they are there for defense only and that the islands will mostly be used for civilians.
Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged not militarize islands in the contested South China Sea, including the artificial ones it has built by expanding already existing reefs, and the Chinese Defense Ministry insists the construction does not change his pledge because the weapons are defensive.
“On the issue of reef building, the Chinese side has repeatedly expressed its stance that the construction is mainly for civil purposes,” China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement. “As for the necessary military facilities, mainly for defense and self-protection, and this is proper and legitimate. For example, someone was at the door of your home, cocky and swaggering, how could it be that you wouldn’t prepare a slingshot?”
The South China Sea is hotly contested partially because China claims much of it; however, the waterway is surrounded by other countries, including the Philippines, which also have their own claims. The sea, however, is also an important trade route carrying about $5 trillion of goods to countries around the world.
The images revealing military developments on artificial islands were released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project at The Center for Strategic and International Studies, and show several octagonal shapes on the edges of the islands, around other construction.
U.S. military officials told The Wall Street Journal that China has been adding weapons to the islands for months, with three of them gaining weapons just since August. They say the weapons have limited ranges of a mile or two and could not hit a U.S. naval ship because they travel farther from the coast than that — suggesting the weapons are truly defense.
The concern is if the Chinese add more weapons or military installations, which may allow them to assert more dominance over the hotly contested waterway. The weapons, described by officials as modular, could easily be swapped out for bigger surface-to-air missiles that may actually pose a threat to ships in the South China Sea.
“It appears China is intent on transforming these features into operational bases that will allow its military to project power and assert control of one of the most vital international waterways,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain. “This is unacceptable.”