Washington: China has installed cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, according to reports.
The US news network CNBC reported that the YJ-12B cruise missiles could target ships within a radius of 295 nautical miles and the HQ-9B long-range surface-to-air missiles could strike within 160 miles, citing sources with knowledge of US intelligence reports.
The move, if confirmed, would mark the first Chinese missile deployments in the Spratly islands, where several Asian countries including Vietnam and Taiwan have rival claims.
China’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
CNBC quoted unnamed sources as saying that according to US intelligence assessments, the missiles had been moved to Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef within the past 30 days.
The US defence department, which opposes China’s installation of military facilities on outposts it has built up in the South China Sea, declined to comment. “We don’t comment on matters of intelligence,” a spokesman said.
China has made no mention of any missile deployments but says its military facilities in the Spratlys are purely defensive, and that it can do what it likes on its own territory.
Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies thinktank, said deploying missiles on the outposts would be important.
“These would be the first missiles in the Spratlys, either surface to air, or anti-ship,” he said.
He added that such deployments were expected as China built missile shelters on the reefs last year and already deployed such missile systems on Woody Island further to the north.
Poling said it would be another step on China’s road to dominating the South China Sea, a key global trade route.
“Before this, if you were one of the other claimants … you knew that China was monitoring your every move. Now you will know that you’re operating inside Chinese missile range. That’s a pretty strong, if implicit, threat,” he said.
Last month, US Admiral Philip Davidson, nominated to head US Pacific command, said China’s “forward operating bases” in the South China Sea appeared complete.
“The only thing lacking are the deployed forces,” he said. Once these were added, “China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania”.