Satellite images show China may be installing a high-frequency radar system in the Spratlys - a move that would vastly extend Beijing's ability to monitor traffic in the South China Sea, analyst Gregory Poling tells DW.
Released on February 22, the commercial satellite imagery shows that the construction of facilities at Cuarteron Reef, the southernmost of China's occupied features in the disputed South China Sea (SCS), is nearly complete, with the artificial island now covering about 52 acres (211,500 square meters), said the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
But perhaps more importantly, "two probable radar towers have been built on the northern portion of the feature - located in the disputed Spratly Islands - and a number of 65-foot (20-meter) poles have been erected across a large section of the southern portion," added the Washington-based think tank.
The revelations come just days after satellite imagery showed that Beijing had deployed two batteries of an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of the contested Paracel Islands, in a move seen by the US and SCS claimants as a significant military escalation on China's part.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had no specific information about the latest CSIS report, but said China had undisputed sovereignty over the area.
Beijing claims most of the SCS, arguing that it is asserting its so-called "historic rights" to maritime resources in the area. This has led to territorial feuds with neighboring nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia which lay competing claims.
Poling: 'Beijing's eventual goal is to make it impossible for Southeast Asian claimants to operate in or around the Spratly Islands without China's forbearance'
In a DW interview, Gregory Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS, explains why he believes the deployment of high-frequency radar to the dispute area is an important step in Beijing's long-term strategy of establishing effective control over all water and airspace within the nine-dash line.
DW: After examining the satellite images, what are the indications that China may be installing a high-frequency radar system in the Spratly Islands?
Gregory Poling: A series of approximately 20-meter-tall poles have been set up across a large area of the artificial island built on Cuarteron Reef. These could indicate a high-frequency radar installation, especially because Cuarteron, as the southernmost of China's occupied features, would be the most logical place to install one.
If confirmed, how significant would this move be?
A high-frequency radar on Cuarteron Reef would significantly extend China's ability to monitor surface and especially air traffic in the southern portion of the South China Sea, where it has previously lacked significant radar coverage.
This is a major piece of the puzzle in Beijing's long-term strategy of establishing effective control over all water and airspace within the nine-dash line. This will most immediately affect the Southeast Asian states, whose activities China can better monitor and interfere with. But it could also have major implications for US forces in any future crisis in Northeast Asia, during which the United States would likely need to bring forces up through the SCS.
What radar systems are we talking about and what are they capable of?
It is impossible to tell from the satellite photos we have available precisely which type of high frequency radar this might be. The ranges of high frequency radar vary widely.
Why would such a radar system pose any kind of threat to other countries?
As China increases the number of ships and aircraft in the Spratly Islands, which will grow exponentially as it completes its facilities on its seven artificial islands this year, it will be able to exert more and more pressure on neighboring states.
The key to being able to do so will be the ability to monitor traffic in the area, which is where radar comes in. Beijing's eventual goal is to make it impossible for Southeast Asian claimants to operate in or around the Spratly Islands without China's forbearance.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that China had every right to build on its own territory and deploy "limited" defensive means there. In your view, what do such statements and actions reveal about Chinese policy and plans in the region?
First, it indicates China's unwillingness to even recognize the claims of other states, much less negotiate in good faith on them or attempt to find a diplomatic rather than military solution. China cannot insist that it has every right to build on disputed territories but then feign outrage at any use of disputed features by Southeast Asian claimants, no matter how minor.
Second, it shows that China assumes that as long as it can keep tensions below the point of outright US intervention, it will be able to build out its power projection capabilities bit by bit until it establishes de facto, if not legal, control over all disputed waters, seabed, and airspace in the SCS.
Beijing's long-term strategy is to establish effective control over all water and airspace within the nine-dash line, says Poling
Beijing rejects accusations by the US and other countries, saying it is merely installing defensive measures on the islands, primarily for civilian purposes. What is your view on this?
Most of what China is building on the Spratly islands is dual-use, meaning that it could serve both civilian and military purposes. This is the case with radars, airstrips, port facilities, etc. But what China is really doing is establishing all the necessary infrastructure to allow it to deploy military forces quickly and decisively.
It can claim that a high-frequency radar serves a civilian purpose, but it is clearly overkill. Smaller radar already established on the features are more than sufficient to monitor and ensure safe passage of civilian traffic around them. We have already seen this pattern with its airstrips. China claims a civilian use, but there is no reason to construct a 3,000 meter airstrip unless you intend to land military craft on it. It would be like building a mansion but insisting you will only use one floor.
Construction at Gaven, Hughes, and Johnson South reefs is also nearing completion, and radar facilities at each will play a part in bolstering China's ability to monitor and respond to activity in the SCS, says CSIS
How are neighboring Asian countries and the US likely to react?
This will only further inflame tensions with regional states and outside powers like the United States, Japan, and Australia. It will cement the perception in Southeast Asia and abroad that China has no intention of altering course and seeking an equitable solution with its neighbors.
This will, in turn, reinforce the commitment of those states to build up their own military capabilities, deepen security ties with the US, Japan, Australia, and others, and encourage operations to challenge Chinese claims, including US freedom of navigation operations and Australia's Operation Gateway patrols.
With the completion of China's artificial islands coming up in the next few months and a ruling expected in late May from the arbitration tribunal in the Philippines case against China, it is safe to say that tensions will only escalate over the course of 2016.
Gregory B. Poling is the Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and Fellow, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.