China appears to have installed anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons on its man-made islands in the strategically vital South China Sea, a US security think tank says, upping the stakes in what many see as a potential Asian powder keg. The Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report late Wednesday that the anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems designed to guard against missile attacks have been placed on all seven of China's newly created islands. The outposts were built in recent years over objections by the US 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, the AP reports. CSIS based its conclusions on satellite images taken in mid- to late November and published on its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website.
In a statement, China's Defense Ministry repeated that development on the islands was mainly for civilian purposes, but it added that defensive measures were "appropriate and legal." "For example, were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready even a slingshot?" the statement said. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters he had no information about the reported weaponry, but said such deployments were China's sovereign right. 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," CSIS experts wrote in the report. "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-be-operational air bases."