China has reclaimed more than 3,200 acres in the disputed Spratly Islands, as of December 2015, and has shifted toward building infrastructure and militarizing the expanded reefs and shoals, the Pentagon said in its annual assessment of Beijing’s military.
That will be no surprise to the think tanks and media that have tracked China’s land-reclamation efforts, but it marks the first time the Pentagon’s annual report has included such detailed information. The report, released Friday, includes seven pages of diagrams and before-and-after satellite images of the construction.
Last year’s report to Congress included just two brief paragraphs on the effort; it said China had reclaimed only 500 acres as of December 2014.
The 2016 report said airstrips are under construction at Mischief and Subi Reefs, where China is in the “final stages of primary infrastructure construction.” That work includes building communication and surveillance systems and logistical support facilities, the report said.
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“The airfields, berthing areas, and resupply facilities will allow China to maintain a more flexible and persistent coast guard and military presence in the area,” the report said. “This would improve China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to China, and reduce the time required to deploy them.”
“Although artificial islands do not provide China with any additional territorial or maritime rights within the South China Sea, China will be able to use its reclaimed features as persistent civil-military bases to enhance its presence in the South China Sea significantly and enhance China’s ability to control the features and nearby maritime space,” the report said.
The U.S. has repeatedly sent warships and surveillance aircraft near the islands to exercise what it calls freedom of navigation patrols. Earlier this week the destroyer William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Fiery Cross Reef.
“China's leadership demonstrated a willingness to tolerate higher levels of tension in pursuit of its maritime sovereignty claims,” Abraham Denmark, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for East Asia, said at a Friday afternoon briefing. “China's strategy is to secure its objectives without jeopardizing the regional peace that has enabled its military and economic development, which in turn has maintained the Chinese Communist Party's grip on power.”
The report said China’s military budget rose again in 2015, up $8 billion to $144 billion. But Denmark said actual military spending is much higher — $180 billion — because the Chinese budget omits research-and-development spending and some purchases of foreign weapons.
The report said that the People’s Liberation Army “continued to improve key capabilities that would be used in theater contingencies, including cruise missiles; short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles; high performance aircraft; integrated air defense networks; information operations capabilities; and amphibious and airborne assault units.”
As in previous years, the report noted the Pentagon’s concerns about China’s anti-ship ballistic missile projects. It also pointed out China’s focus on counterspace, offensive cyber operations, and electronic warfare capabilities.
“China’s military modernization is producing capabilities that have the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages,” the report said.
The report also said that the PLA is increasing its global presence, and noted its intention to open a military facility in Djibouti.
“This is a big step forward for the PLA, which has never had an overseas facility before,” Denmark said.