China Installs Weapons in South China Sea, Satellites Show

China has installed weapons on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in disputed water of the South China Sea, according to a U.S. think tank’s analysis of satellite imagery. Photo: Digitalglobe/Reuters

BEIJING—A U.S. think-tank report that China has installed antiaircraft and other weapons on all seven islands it has built in the South China Sea is raising the stakes in a regional dispute as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump signals he is ready to confront Beijing on territorial issues.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said late Wednesday that satellite imagery showed China had installed the weapons in recent months, despite President Xi Jinping’s pledge not to militarize the islands in the Spratly archipelago, where Beijing’s territorial claims overlap with those of several other governments.

China’s Defense Ministry in a statement on its website Thursday afternoon reiterated that any reef construction was mainly for civil use, though it appeared to also send a message to the U.S. “As to the necessary military facilities, they are mainly for defense and self-defense, which is appropriate and legal. For example, if someone is showing off their strength on your doorstep, can’t you even prepare a slingshot?”

China’s island-building over the past three years has raised fears in the U.S. and among its Asian allies and partners that Beijing plans to use its expanding military power to enforce its territorial claims and to take control of a shipping route that carries more than $ 5 trillion of world trade annually.

The U.S. says it doesn’t take sides in the territorial dispute but has often sent military planes and ships through the area, sometimes close to Beijing’s artificial islands, to demonstrate its right to freedom of navigation through what it sees as international waters.

Mr. Trump has indicated he will take a much harder line than his predecessor toward China, suggesting in the past two weeks alone that he would review U.S. commitments on the highly sensitive issue of Taiwan and accusing Beijing of building a “massive military complex” in the South China Sea.

Those comments have revived tensions in the region, which had appeared to ease over the past months, in particular as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte set aside Manila’s South China Sea dispute with Beijing in favor of expanding economic links.

“If the [AMTI] report is true, then it is a cause for serious concern because it tends to raise tension and undermine peace and stability in the region,” Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said.

An aerial photo of Subi Reef taken Nov. 17. ENLARGE
An aerial photo of Subi Reef taken Nov. 17. Photo: CSIS/AMTI DigitalGlobe

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop echoed the sentiment. “The building of artificial islands and the possible militarization is creating an environment of tension and mistrust between claimants and other regional states,” she said. Canberra signed a deal on Wednesday with Washington to base U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighters in Australia’s north from next year, a sign of the U.S. military commitment to the region.

China’s weapons deployment predates Mr. Trump’s recent remarks and is in line with Beijing’s long-term strategy to steadily upgrade military facilities on the islands, which it says are mainly for purposes such as weather monitoring and search and rescue.

“I want to stress that deployment of necessary defense facilities by China on its own territory has nothing to do with militarization,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in a regular briefing on Thursday.

But analysts say the new weaponry will significantly enhance China’s capability to control the surrounding waters and to enforce a potential air-defense identification zone in the area like the one Beijing declared in 2013 over the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute with Japan. China has said it reserves the right to declare such a zone in the South China Sea as well.

Fiery Cross Reef, Nov. 10.
Fiery Cross Reef, Nov. 10. Photo: CSIS/AMTI DigitalGlobe

The deployments are unlikely to disrupt Beijing’s outreach to other claimants, but could compound efforts by some to upgrade defense ties with the U.S. and their own armed forces; Vietnam, especially, has been expanding the South China Sea islands it controls—although on a much smaller scale.

“We mustn’t interpret this as being specifically directed at President-elect Trump,” said Ian Storey, an expert on maritime security at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Nevertheless, it will fuel the debate in Washington over how the U.S. should respond to Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.”

Mr. Storey said the U.S. might send military ships or planes near China’s man-made islands to demonstrate its right to freedom of navigation once more before President Barack Obama leaves office, operations that have become largely symbolic. “Beijing will be more concerned about what happens after Trump is inaugurated in January, he added.

I say this often but it’s worth repeating—we will cooperate where we can and be ready to confront where we must.

—Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, in Australia on Wednesday.

AMTI, run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that since June and July it had tracked construction of hexagonal structures on three artificial islands—Fiery Cross, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef—where China has built airstrips large enough to accommodate military aircraft.

Those structures are nearly identical to defensive fortifications built earlier at four smaller artificial islands, which appear to include antiaircraft guns and probably close-in weapons systems, or CIWS, designed to track and shoot down cruise missiles, AMTI said.

Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in a speech at an Australian think tank on Wednesday that the U.S. “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.” He added, “We will cooperate where we can and be ready to confront where we must.”

AMTI said the weapons it identified could be used to back up a defensive umbrella provided by a future deployment to the islands of mobile surface-to-air missile systems.

Write to Jeremy Page at jeremy.page@wsj.com

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