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China deploys missile systems to disputed South China Sea islands


China has installed anti-air and anti-shipping missile systems on Fiery Cross Reef (A), Subi Reef (B) and Mischief Reef (C) in the Spratly Islands, effectively putting at-risk aircraft and shipping operating in the South China Sea between The Philippines and Vietnam. (Google Earth)

China has installed long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems on three of the disputed Spratly Islands it has claimed in recent years in the South China Sea.

Described as a “a clear offensive threat” by the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the installation of the systems effectively puts at-risk aircraft and shipping in an area that covers most of the disputed region from the Philippines island of Palawan to the Vietnamese coast.

The air defence system is the HQ-9B, a Chinese derivative of the Russian S-300V with a dual seeker and thrust vector control. The missile has a range of 160km and has been adapted to operate with a number of Chinese land-based and naval radar and passive sensor systems.

The anti-ship system is the YJ-12B which has a range of 300km and a speed of Mach 2, and closely resembles the Russian Kh-31. It can be surface-launched with a booster or air launched from H-6K or JH-7B strike aircraft.

The missiles have reportedly been installed on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, all of which are former atolls which have been made into permanent above-high tide bases in recent years through the addition of runways, anchorages, harbours, barracks and other installations.

Fiery Cross Reef

Fiery Cross Reef. (Google Earth)

“This should be seen as China crossing an important threshold,” Gregory Poling, CSIS’s director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative told CNBC. “Missile platforms present a clear offensive threat.”

“It is a pretty clear threat to the other claimants and furthers China’s goal of establishing complete control over the water and airspace of the South China Sea.”

Subi Reef

Subi Reef. (Google Earth)

All of the Spratly Islands, a series of low-lying reefs and shoals, and most of the South China Sea lie within China’s 9-Dash Line over which it claims sovereignty.

But other nations surrounding the South China Sea including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Indonesia also claim many overlapping parts of the islands and surrounding ocean, much of which is believed to contain large oil and gas reserves.

Mischief Reef

Mischief Reef. (Google Earth)

In 2016 the International Court in The Hague ruled in favour of The Philippines which had brought a case against China. It said that the rocky outcrops claimed by China, some of which are exposed only at low tide, cannot be used as the basis of territorial claims.

It also said some of the waters were “within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China”, and that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in those waters by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration and by constructing artificial islands.

In response, China doubled it’s island-building efforts, while claiming the Philippines had “distorted facts, misinterpreted laws and concocted a pack of lies” in order to undermine Chinese interests.