BEIJING — China appears to have installed anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons on its man-made islands in the strategically vital South China Sea, a U.S. security think tank says, upping the stakes in what many see as a potential Asian powder keg.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, said in a report late Wednesday that the anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems designed to guard against missile attack have been placed on all seven of China’s newly created islands.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that he could not confirm the report, but Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the imagery shows China is militarizing the South China Sea. He called for a “determined response” from the U.S. and its allies.
“The United States must take immediate steps to underscore our unwavering commitment to freedom of the seas and to enforce a stable balance of power in the region,” McCain said in a statement.
The outposts were built in recent years over objections by the U.S. and rival claimants by piling sand on top of coral reefs, followed by the construction of military-grade 3,000-meter (10,000-foot) airstrips, barracks, lighthouses, radar stations and other infrastructure.
CSIS based its conclusions on satellite images taken in mid-to-late November and published on the website of its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
In a statement, China’s Defense Ministry repeated that development on the islands was mainly for civilian purposes, but 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 ministry statement said.
The Philippines, which has troops and villagers stationed on some reefs and islands near China’s new artificial islands, expressed concern despite recently improving relations with China.