China has almost finished building more than twenty structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea. Two American officials told Reuters that the structures appear designed to hold long-range surface-to-air missiles.
The latest development is likely to raise questions about what, if anything, the United States might do to answer China’s actions.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke about the issue in January during his Senate confirmation hearing. He said China should be barred from the islands it has built in the South China Sea.
He said, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops; and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be permitted.”
This week, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike group began what the U.S. called “routine operations” in the area. A Navy spokesman said the group would contribute to “freedom of navigation and lawful use of the sea.”
China claims most of the waters of the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also have claims. So does the government in Taiwan.
China has already built military airstrips on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs of the Spratly Islands. The new concrete structures appear to be 20 meters long and 10 meters high. The roofs of the structures appear to be able to open and close.
A U.S. intelligence officer told Reuters the structures look like others that hold surface-to-air missiles. So, the officer said “the logical conclusion is that's what they are for.”
Reactions to report of new structures
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday he knew of the report about the structures. He said it was a normal right under international law for a nation to build on its territory and to deploy “territorial defense facilities.” He did not provide more details.
Greg Poling is a South China Sea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He said in a report last December that China had put weapons on all seven of its artificial islands. He said such weapons include anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems.
He said the new structures would expand China's air defense over the islands.
"It certainly raises the tension," Poling said. "The Chinese have gotten good at these steady increases in their capabilities."
Reuters reported that the U.S. intelligence official it spoke to said the structures did not create much of a military threat to U.S. forces. He said the building project appeared to be more of a political test for the Trump administration.
On Tuesday, the Philippine Foreign Secretary called China's placement of weapons in the South China Sea "very unsettling.”
He said the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, hoped China and the United States would ensure peace and stability in the area.
I’m Pat Bodnar.
Hai Do adapted this story from Reuters for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
range - n. a specified distance
routine - n. a regular way of doing things
concrete - n. a hard, strong material that is used for building and made by mixing cement, sand, rocks and water
logical - adj. sensible or reasonable
facilities - n. something built for for a specific purpose
stability - n. the quality or state of being stable