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Images show 'significant' Chinese weapons systems in South China Sea

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The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said its findings come despite statements by the Chinese leadership that Beijing has no intention to militarise the islands in the strategic trade route, where territory is claimed by several countries.

AMTI said it had been tracking construction of hexagonal structures on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratly Islands since June and July.

China has already built military length airstrips on these islands.

"It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defence fortifications already constructed at China's smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron reefs," it said, citing images taken in November and made available to Reuters.

"This model has gone through another evolution at [the] much-larger bases on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs."

Satellite images of Hughes and Gaven reefs showed what appeared to be anti-aircraft guns and what were likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) to protect against cruise missile strikes, it said.

AMTI said covers had been installed on the towers at Fiery Cross, but the size of platforms on these and the covers suggested they concealed defence systems similar to those at the smaller reefs.

"These gun and probable CIWS emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defence of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea," it said.

"Among other things, they would be the last line of defence against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against these soon-to-be-operational air bases."

'Prepping for future conflict'

AMTI director Greg Poling said AMTI had spent months trying to figure out what the purposes of the structures was.

"This is the first time that we're confident in saying they are anti-aircraft and CIWS emplacements," he said.

"We did not know that they had systems this big and this advanced there.

"This is militarisation. The Chinese can argue that it's only for defensive purposes, but if you are building giant anti-aircraft gun and CIWS emplacements, it means that you are prepping for a future conflict.

"They keep saying they are not militarising, but they could deploy fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles tomorrow if they wanted to," he said.

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said possible militarisation was creating mistrust between claimants.

"The building of artificial islands and the possible militarisation is creating an environment of tension and mistrust between claimants and other regional states," she said.

"We urge claimants to refrain from coercive behaviour and unilateral actions designed to change the status quo in disputed areas.

"This is not in the interest of any state and will lead to reputation and other costs for claimants engaging in such behaviour."

China has said military construction on the islands will be limited to necessary defensive requirements.

The United States has criticised what it called China's militarisation of its maritime outposts and stressed the need for freedom of navigation by conducting periodic air and naval patrols near them that have angered Beijing.

US President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office on January 20, has also criticised Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea while signalling he may adopt a tougher approach to China's assertive behaviour in the region than President Barack Obama.