In a move that could also be viewed strategically as a challenge to the U.S. and especially on the leadership of President Donald Trump and how his administration is likely to respond, China is almost done building close to two dozen structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea seemingly designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles.
U.S. officials who spoke with Reuters on condition of anonymity said that such action of China of building the concrete structures with retractable roofs on Subi Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs can be seen as a form of military escalation by China. China has already previously built military-length airstrips along the Spratly Islands chain.
A U.S. intelligence officer said the structures China is building in the contested waters resemble others that house surface-to-air missiles batteries so it's logical to conclude that is the same purpose of the new structures. Another official said the structures are approximately 20 meters (66feet) long and 10 meters (33 feet) high.
China is laying claim to almost the entirety of the South China Sea, which is equivalent to a third of the world's maritime traffic. Other countries such as U.S. ally The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan hold contending claims to the waters. The Trump administration has previously talked tough against China's provocative actions in the contested waters and has called the Asian superpower's island building in the South China Sea as illegal. A Pentagon spokesperson underscored America's commitment to "non-militarization in the South China Sea" and encouraged all claimants including allies to only take actions consistent with international laws.
A report by the Strategic and International Studies in Washington that came out in December last year said that China had installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the islands it has built in the South China Sea. The new structures would expand China's air defense umbrella over the islands. The moves are certain to further raise tensions in the region. Already, the Philippines has described China's actions as "unsettling".
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson previously declared in his Senate confirmation hearing last month that Beijing should be denied access to the islands it is building in the South China Sea. Said statement of Tillerson caught the ire of Beijing. Some observers are claiming that Tillerson later hinted a 'softening' of his tough stance against China.
The U.S. intelligence official who talked to Reuters was quick to underscore that China's structures in the contested waters do not really pose a significant military threat to U.S. forces in the region, but it sends a political challenge to the U.S. as to how the Trump administration is likely to respond to China's actions.