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China deploying weapons on artificial reefs, think tank says

In this undated file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a Chinese H-6K bomber patrols the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. (Liu Rui / Associated Press)
In this undated file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a Chinese H-6K bomber patrols the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. (Liu Rui / Associated Press)
By David Tweed Bloomberg

China appears to be deploying weapons systems on all seven of the reefs it has reclaimed in the South China Sea, according to photographs released by a Washington-based think tank.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said it began tracking in June and July the construction of identical hexagon-shaped structures to house the weapons on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs, where China has already completed military grade airstrips and installed radar.

“It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defense fortifications already constructed at China’s smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron reefs,” AMTI, a unit of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on its website.

The installations call into question a pledge made by China’s president, Xi Jinping, not to militarize the disputed reefs in the South China Sea, a $5 trillion-a-year shipping route that the U.S. has patrolled largely unchallenged since World War II. China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the waters were dismissed by an international tribunal in July. Beijing said it would ignore the ruling.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has cited what he said was China’s effort to build a “massive fortress” in the South China Sea as one reason for taking a more confrontational approach to relations. He listed the project in a Fox News interview while defending his decision to accept a call from the Taiwanese president, calling into question the U.S. policy of recognizing Beijing as the capital of both the mainland and Taiwan.

“I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” Trump said in the interview broadcast Sunday.

China’s defense ministry said in a statement Thursday that its “installation of defensive facilities in the South China Sea is appropriate and legal.” The foreign ministry said last year that China was obliged to build some defensive facilities on the reefs as part of its responsibility to provide public services to the region.

AMTI said that anti-aircraft guns appear to have been installed on China’s four smaller reefs. Although they cannot be definitively identified, they were likely to be “close-in weapons systems” whose function was to detect and destroy incoming missiles and enemy aircraft, the group said.

“These gun and probable CIWS emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defense of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea,” AMTI wrote. “Among other things, they would be the last line of defense against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against these soon-to-be-operational air bases.”

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