China’s sneaky missile move angers US
SLOWLY but surely, China has been positioning itself to seize control of the South China Sea.
Earlier this week, a new phase in this creeping land-grab was revealed with reports Beijing had in recent months installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three of its illegal artificial outposts in the Spratly Islands.
The archipelago, also claimed by the Philippines, sits astride some of the busiest commercial shipping lanes and fishing grounds in the world.
"We're well aware of China's militarisation of the South China Sea," White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders told yesterday. "We've raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this and there will be near-term and long-term consequences."
The deployment represents "a major escalation" in the dispute over ownership of the congested waterway former US military consultant Eric Sayers told Reuters. "When China sees that it can get away with these types of actions with little cost … it only makes it more likely they will keep pressing," he said.
Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef are just three out of a series of manufactured islands built in an enormous Chinese engineering effort since 2014. Billions of tons of soil and rock was pumped out of the sea floor and on to what was once tidal outcrops and coral reefs.
These three particular reefs are part of the Spratly Islands, just off the coast of the Philippines.
The cruise missiles now based there have the potential to lockdown all shipping within a 550km radius.
All shipping crossing the South China sea, and much of that approaching key Philippines population centres, would be within their reach.
China's HQ-9 anti-aircraft missile system, based on the Russian S-300 system now deployed in Syria, is capable of engaging high and low flying aircraft, as well as cruise missiles, out to a range of about 200km. It is reportedly equipped with both radar and infra-red homing systems, making it harder to jam and dodge.
There were signs the island fortresses had already been fitted with antimissile artillery, as well as heavy electronic jamming equipment.
These sit protectively about large military-grade runways and hardened hangars. China is yet to actively deploy combat jets and bombers to these bases, but once they do their grip on the disputed waterway will be complete.
Perhaps aware of the missile movements, US Admiral and chief of Fleet Forces Command last month warned Congress that 'only war' could now stop Beijing controlling the South China Sea.
"Once occupied, China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania," Admiral Philip S. Davidson wrote.
"The PLA will be able to use these bases to challenge US presence in the region, and any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants.
"In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States."
Instead, it insisted it had the right to put its weapons where it wanted to defend its national security interests, and that the Spratleys were its sovereign territory.
"Those who do not intend to be aggressive have no need to be worried or scared," ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in response to Washington's warning.
"China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and its nearby waters. It is needed to protect the sovereignty and security of China, and justified for China as a sovereign nation to carry out peaceful development activities and necessary defence constructions. The related deployment is not directed at any country."
Chinese media says the islands are being armed because of the 'freedom of navigation' exercises being conducted by the US and its allies.
"These Western reports are only speculating about China's militarisation in the South China Sea. Deploying defensive facilities in the region is based on our country's rightful safety needs as well as the security situation in the area," the National Institute for the South China Sea's Chen Xiangmiao told the Global Times.
"There is no need to be concerned or afraid if you do not plan to invade," another defence commentator said.
However, Beijing has positioned itself in such a way that any attempt to dispute its self-asserted 'ownership' of the South China Sea can easily be interpreted as 'invasion'.
The Philippines took China to the international Permanent Court of Arbitration over its ambitious claims, which asserts the entire sea right up to the Philippines coast was China's sovereign territory.
The 2016 ruling rejected Beijing's claims, which also push right up to the coasts of Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, as having 'no legal basis'.
Beijing flouted the international rule of law, and rejected the verdict.