China defends ‘slingshot’ in South China Sea jousting
Defensive measures ‘appropriate and legal’
BEIJING | Chinese officials offered what appeared to be a backhanded confirmation a day after a Washington think tank published new evidence that Beijing may have installed anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons on its man-made islands in the strategically vital South China Sea, upping the stakes in what many see as a potential Asian powder keg.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, said in a report late Wednesday reported in The Washington Times that the anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems designed to guard against missile attack have been placed on all seven of China’s newly created islands.
China has made aggressive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, but had also long contended its build-up on the islands in the waterway were for civilian purposes. But in its first public response to the CSIS findings, China’s Defense Ministry on Thursday said that defensive measures and installations on the man-made islands would be “appropriate and legal.”
“For example, if someone were threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready even a slingshot?” the ministry statement said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that he could not confirm the report, but Republican Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said the imagery shows China is militarizing the South China Sea. He called for a “determined response” from the U.S. and its allies.
“The United States must take immediate steps to underscore our unwavering commitment to freedom of the seas and to enforce a stable balance of power in the region,” Mr. McCain said in a statement.
The outposts were built in recent years over objections by the U.S. and rival claimants by piling sand on top of coral reefs, followed by the construction of military-grade 10,000-foot airstrips, barracks, lighthouses, radar stations and other infrastructure.
CSIS analysts based their conclusions on satellite images taken in mid-to-late November and published on the website of its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The Philippines, which has troops and villagers stationed on some reefs and islands near China’s new artificial islands, expressed concern despite recently improving relations with Beijing.
“If true, it is a big concern for us and the international community who uses the South China Sea lanes for trade,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said. “It would mean that the Chinese are militarizing the area, which is not good.”
CSIS experts wrote that China’s new island armaments “show that Beijing is serious about defense of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea.”
“Among other things, they would be the last line of defense against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against these soon-to-beoperational air bases,” the report said.
Beijing says the islands are intended to boost maritime safety in the region while downplaying their military utility. They also mark China’s claim to ownership of practically the entire South China Sea.
Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim territory in the waterway through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year, while the U.S. Navy insists on its right to operate throughout the area, including in waters close to China’s new outposts.