China builds new military facilities on South China Sea islands

       Satellite images show that China has built new military facilities on artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, a U.S. think tank reported on Thursday.

      The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said that recent satellite images show four new missile shelters, in addition of eight, and radar and communications facilities being built on the Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands.

      The United States has criticized China’s build-up of military facilities on the artificial islands and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement through the South China Sea, an important trade route. China has denied U.S. charges that it is militarizing the sea.

      Last month, a U.S. Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP). This was the first instance of FONOP in the vital waterway since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

      The disputed area also is claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

      Trump has sought China’s help in reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and tension between Washington and Beijing over military installations in the South China Sea could complicate those efforts.

      In February, Reuters reported that China had nearly finished building structures to house long-range surface-to-air missiles on the three islands.

      On Mischief Reef, a very large antennae array is being installed that presumably boosts Beijing’s ability to monitor the surroundings, the think tank said, adding that the installation should be of concern to the Philippines due to its proximity to an area claimed by Manila. A large dome recently was installed on Fiery Cross and another is under construction, indicating a sizeable communications or radar system, AMTI said. Two more domes are being built at Mischief Reef, it said. A smaller dome has been installed near the missile shelters on Mischief, “indicating that it could be connected to radars for any missile systems that might be housed there,” AMTI said.

      “Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time,” it said.

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