BEIJING • China has upgraded its military infrastructure in the disputed Paracel chain of islands in the South China Sea, according to a Washington-based think-tank.
Beijing has constructed harbours, helipads and a full-fledged helicopter base on several islands in the island chain north of the hotly contested Spratlys, said the Centre for Strategic and International Studies' (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative this week.
The report, released on Wednesday, says that China now occupies 20 outposts in the Paracels which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
"Three of these now have protected harbours capable of hosting large numbers of naval and civilian vessels. Four others boast smaller harbours, with a fifth under construction on Drummond Island. Five of the islands contain helipads, with Duncan Island housing a full helicopter base," the report said.
The Paracels, said CSIS, "plays a key role in China's goal of establishing surveillance and power projection capabilities throughout the South China Sea".
Before-and-after satellite images showed that the most extensive build-up was carried out on Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels.
"Not all of China's outposts in the Paracels currently house significant infrastructure, and many contain no more than one or two buildings (including two with only lighthouses). But, the presence of small buildings and construction materials suggests China may be preparing to expand those features," said the think-tank.
As the Woody Island has been used as "a blueprint for upgrades at China's three largest bases in the Spratlys", the researchers conclude that it is reasonable to assume that the bases on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratlys could soon host capabilities similar to those on Woody Island, including surface-to-air missiles and cruise missiles.
The CSIS claimed in December that China appeared to have installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the Spratlys.
At that time, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that its construction in the South China Sea was mainly for civilian use and that it was "legitimate and normal" for it to take steps to defend its territory.
"If China's building of normal facilities and deploying necessary territorial defensive facilities on its own islands is considered militarisation, then what is the sailing of fleets into the South China Sea?" said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, in an apparent reference to United States "freedom of navigation" patrols in the waters.
China's building up of islands in the disputed waters has been an irritant for rival claimants and a source of tension with the US.
The US Pacific Fleet said yesterday that two military aircraft from China and the US had an "unsafe" encounter on Wednesday over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, reported Bloomberg.
A People's Liberation Army Air Force KJ-200 surveillance plane had "an interaction characterised by US Pacific Command as 'unsafe'" with a Navy P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft, Pacific Command spokesman Robert Shuford said in an e-mail.
An international tribunal last July had dismissed China's claims to almost all of the South China Sea. Beijing says it would ignore the ruling.