Beijing: China aims to base scores of fighter jets on artificial islands it has built in disputed areas of the South China Sea, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, as Beijing expands its military reach amid uncertainty about Washington’s policy in Asia.
Beijing has finished construction, including the installation of fixed naval guns, atop its four smallest outposts in the Spratly island chain, where Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have overlapping claims, the Pentagon said in its annual report on China’s military power.
The report comes days after James Mattis, US defence secretary, insisted at a forum in Singapore that Washington would continue to expand its engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, after regional allies expressed uncertainty about President Donald Trump’s commitment to challenging Beijing’s expansive claims over the South China Sea.
China’s efforts are focused on building infrastructure, including aircraft hangars, on its three largest outposts in the Spratlys — the Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs — which will give it the capacity to house “up to three regiments of fighters” when complete, the report added. It said 24 fighter-sized hangars were being built on each expanded reef as of late-2016. “China will be able to use its reclaimed features as persistent civil-military bases to enhance its presence in the South China Sea,” the Pentagon said.
The report added that the construction of China’s first overseas naval base in Djibouti, which began last year, would “most likely” presage similar facilities in other countries as Beijing seeks “wider operational reach”. Nations that have close relations with China, such as Pakistan, would be the most likely hosts, it said. Meanwhile, demand for military drones in the Middle East and Africa is boosting China’s arms exports, according to the report.
China, one of only a few global suppliers of armed drones, “faces little competition for sales to the Middle East and north Africa”, since rival suppliers such as the US and Israel were bound to a greater extent by arms control treaties, it said. China has exported armed drones to more than 10 countries in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Chinese state media reported last year.
The bestselling Chinese drone, the Caihong-3, is capable of firing missiles at a range of 10km and staying in the air for more than 10 hours. Increased exports of unmanned aerial vehicles would “result in the Middle East and north Africa surpassing sub-Saharan Africa as China’s . . . largest arms export market” after Pakistan, the report said. China is the world’s third-largest arms exporter, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The Pentagon report also warned that Beijing used “cyber theft, targeted foreign direct investment and exploitation of the access of private Chinese nationals to such technologies”, in order to lower the technological advantage of the US military. China’s defence ministry did not immediately comment on the Pentagon report.