Four weapons installations shown in one of the satellite images released by CSIS. Photo: CSIS A detailed satellite picture of one of the islands. Photo: CSIS
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has accused Beijing of “creating an environment of tension and mistrust” after new satellite images showed China appears to have placed weapons on all seven of its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative released satellite images on Wednesday showing what the Washington-based think-tank believes to be anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons.
These weapons could threaten planes flying over the strategically vital waterway and would create a defensive bubble that would enable Beijing to place longer-range and more offensive weapons on the islands, including fighter planes and bombers.
It comes despite Beijing’s vows not to militarise the islands, which it has been rapidly building over the past two years in defiance of international outcry and despite other countries’ laying claim to the rocks and reefs on which they are based.
“The building of artificial islands and the possible militarisation is creating an environment of tension and mistrust between claimants and other regional states,” Ms Bishop said in a statement sent to Fairfax Media.
“We urge claimants to refrain from coercive behaviour and unilateral actions designed to change the status quo in disputed areas.
“This is not in the interest of any state and will lead to reputation and other costs for claimants engaging in such behaviour.”
Ms Bishop did not name China, but it is the country that has done the overwhelming bulk of island-construction in recent years and the only one that is accused of placing military hardware on those new features.
Both Australian and US military leaders believe that militarisation of the islands is already well on its way.
The latest development comes as US President-elect Donald Trump has signalled he will take a harder line on China, recently taking a phone call from Taiwan’s leader in breach of decades-long protocol and tweeting that Beijing was building “a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.”
On Wednesday in Sydney, visiting US Admiral Harry Harris, who commands all American forces in the Pacific, also sent a warning that the US would confront Beijing if it tried to exert control over the South China Sea waterways through which a significant portion of the world’s commercial shipping passes.
“We will not allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally. No matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea … We will co-operate where we can and be ready to confront where we must,” he said.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has identified hexagonal structures on China’s largest artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago – Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs.
They described these as an “evolution” on installations on smaller islands, which appeared to house anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems that serve as last-ditch defences against incoming cruise missiles.
Images from Fiery Cross Reef showed towers that likely contained targeting radar, the AMTI said. Covers had been placed on the towers and these appeared to conceal weapons systems similar to those seen on the smaller reefs.
“These gun and probable [close-in weapons systems] emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defence of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea,” it said.
Malcolm Davis, an expert in Chinese military modernisation with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said: “The question will be whether China makes the next step by deploying longer-ranged systems, and combat aircraft on to those bases.”
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