WASHINGTON • China will be able to project "substantial offensive military power" within months from artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea's disputed Spratly Islands, the United States Director of National Intelligence said.
In a Feb 23 letter to Mr John McCain, chair of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr James Clapper said Chinese land reclamation and construction work in the Spratlys had established infrastructure needed "to project military capabilities in the South China Sea beyond that which is required for point defence of its outposts".
"Based on the pace and scope of construction at these outposts, China will be able to deploy a range of offensive and defensive military capabilities and support increased PLAN and CCG presence beginning in 2016," he said in the letter released this week, using abbreviations for the Chinese navy and coast guard.
"Once these facilities are completed by the end of 2016 or early 2017, China will have significant capacity to quickly project substantial offensive military power to the region."
The US has voiced concerns about China's assertive pursuit of territory in the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest trade routes.
Asked about Mr Clapper's comments yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China has merely been exercising its right of self-defence.
"China has made appropriate and reasonable defence deployment construction that is within the range of China's sovereignty," Mr Hong told a regular news briefing.
"China urges the relevant country to not talk excitedly with wild gestures on this issue."
Visiting Washington last September, President Xi Jinping responded to US worries by saying that China had no intention to militarise its outposts in the Spratlys. Beijing has said their military roles will be defensive, but the head of the US Pacific Command said last month that China was "clearly militarising" the South China Sea with the aim of achieving East Asian hegemony.
The text of Mr Clapper's letter in response to questions from Mr McCain was published on the news portal of the US Naval Institute. US officials confirmed the content.
Mr Clapper said that while the US had yet to observe deployment of significant Chinese military capabilities in the Spratlys, it had built facilities able to support them, including modern fighter aircraft.
China had already installed military radars at Cuarteron and Fiery Cross reefs, and the infrastructure could also allow for the deployment of surface-to-air missiles, coastal defence cruise missiles and an increased presence of warships, he added.
The US had not seen Chinese air force activity in the Spratlys, but warships had stopped at its outposts, including a guided-missile frigate and a guided-missile destroyer, in December and January, he said.
The official Xinhua news agency said yesterday that China will begin civilian flights to and from an island in the disputed Paracel chain within a year.
The flights will be to Sansha city, on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago, China's administrative base for islands and reefs it controls in the South China Sea, Xinhua reported, citing an interview with Mayor Xiao Jie.