China’s military buildup on disputed islands in the South China Sea is nearly finished and supports Beijing’s plan to rapidly project power in the region, according to intelligence made public this week.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated in an intelligence analysis for Congress that China is nearing completion of key military outposts on reefs and islets claimed by several other nations.
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"Based on the pace and scope of construction at these outposts, China will be able to deploy a range of offensive and defensive military capabilities and support increased PLA [Navy] and [Chinese coast guard] presence beginning in 2016," Clapper said.
"Once these facilities are completed by the end of 2016 or early 2017, China will have significant capacity to quickly project substantial offensive military power in the region," he stated.
The intelligence assessment contradicts Chinese government claims that the military activities in the South China Sea are defensive, limited, and not aimed at achieving regional military hegemony.
"We assess that China has established the necessary infrastructure to project military capabilities in the South China Sea beyond that which is required for point defense of its outposts," the assessment says.
Clapper also said China is likely to continue building infrastructure at outposts in the South China Sea.
The intelligence analysis was contained in the unclassified portion of a more detailed assessment sent on Feb. 23 to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.).
It was provided in response to a request from McCain for an assessment of the impact of Chinese island building on Beijing’s ability to deploy military forces across the area.
"Whatever Chinese officials may be saying publicly, Beijing is using coercion and the threat of force to unilaterally change the status quo and challenge the rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific," McCain told the Washington Free Beacon.
"As China militarizes the South China Sea, the credibility of America’s commitments to the security of our allies and partners in the region hangs in the balance," McCain added. "I am increasingly concerned that China may seek to next reclaim and militarize Scarborough Shoal, which sits just off the coast of the Philippines. Going forward, shaping rather than reacting to China’s assertive behavior will require adopting policies we have been unwilling to consider up to this point."
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a speech last week that Chinese attempts to militarize the sea are increasing the danger of a conflict.
"These activities have the potential to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states," Carter said. "China must not pursue militarization in the South China Sea. Specific actions will have specific consequences."
Clapper stated in the letter that the Chinese appear to be preparing to base fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, and coastal anti-ship cruise missiles at its outposts in the South China Sea. Also expected are increased deployments of PLA Navy warships and Chinese coast guard patrol ships.
Military warning and target acquisition and tracking radar also are being added.
"China has installed military radars, most likely air-surveillance/early warning radars, at Cuarteron and Fiery Cross reefs and a beacon for aircraft direction at Fiery Cross," Clapper said, noting that the Chinese are using solar, wind, and traditional power generators on the military outposts.
Clapper stated that none of the Chinese construction appeared to prepare for surface-to-air missiles but he noted that "China’s mobile SAMs are field-deployable and do not require fixed, prepared sites."
The letter made no mention of China’s dispatch of advanced HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island in the Paracels that was discovered in satellite imagery in mid-February.
The missiles, and a later deployment of jet fighters to the Paracels, triggered concern among U.S. military and defense officials as the most visible indicator of Chinese militarization of the islands thus far.
U.S. officials demanded that China halt the militarization in the sea. Beijing rejected the appeals and said the deployments were defensive in nature.
The military deployments followed a promise made by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Washington in September not to militarize the South China Sea islands.
Asked if China has added military forces to the islands since Sept. 25, Clapper stated that "although we have not detected the deployment of significant military capabilities at its Spratly Islands outposts, China has constructed facilities to support the deployment of high-end military capabilities, including modern fighter aircraft."
China has reclaimed an estimated 3,200 acres of islands and Clapper said intelligence analysts estimate they could add up to 1,000 acres more on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi.
"We further assess that the underwater features at the four smaller reefs would support additional land reclamation," he said, adding that land reclamation is not expected by China in the East China Sea.
According to the intelligence assessment, Chinese navy ships have been observed on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratlys that are claimed by the Philippines and several other nations.
In December, the PLA sent a cruiser to Fiery Cross and later in the month dispatched a guided missile frigate to Subi. In January, a missile destroyer was docked at Mischief.
"In addition to surface combatants, PLAN tank landing ships have been employed widely at outposts to support construction efforts," Clapper said. The Chinese also appear to be building fuel storage and other provisioning facilities at the Spratlys ports.
Clapper said so far no PLA air force or navy aircraft have been seen on the Spratlys, although several civilian aircraft landed on Fiery Cross in January. "Based on this we judge that the airfield on Fiery Cross reef is operational and can accommodate all Chinese military aircraft," he stated.
The commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, told reporters last month that China is aggressively seeking hegemony over the South China Sea using what he called "military bases" on the newly-formed islands.
Harris also warned China not to impose an air defense identification zone over the sea, a move he said would be "destabilizing and provocative."
The Chinese military is encroaching on international waters where an estimated $5.3 trillion in international goods pass annually, including $1 trillion in U.S. trade.
The Navy has conducted two warship passages within 12 miles of disputed islands in operations designed to protect freedom of navigation.
The letter to McCain was first reported by USNI News.
Asked about Clapper’s letter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing March 11 that China’s deployment of defense facilities in the sea is "within the scope of China’s sovereignty, and is [the] exercise of self-preservation and self-defense."
"We urge the relevant country not to make indiscreet remarks on this issue," Lei said.