China builds on a new reef in the South China Sea, escalating regional tension and risk of war

China, which has been aggressively claiming strategic waterway, the South China Sea, by building of military and other installations on artificial islands and reefs has raised concerns over the possibility of military conflict or war for areas surrounding the country China. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei have competing claims in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, the United States (U.S.) once again urged China to halt militarization of the South China Sea, but China said it had the right to build “necessary defense facilities” on what it considers its own territory and urged Washington to stop sending warships and military planes close to the islands that Beijing claims. China has frequently lambasted the U.S. and its allies for freedom of navigation naval operations near to Chinese-occupied islands.

The islands China occupies are off-limits to foreigners, with access under the effective control of the People’s Liberation Army though they are technically administratively part of China’s southern Hainan province. China has said some civilian facilities on the islands are intended for use by others in the region, but the government has given few details about how that may work in practice.

Now, China has installed a new platform on a remote part of the Paracel Islands, which could be used for military purposes, according to recent satellite images reviewed by a U.S. think tank. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said the images showed a “modest new structure” on Bombay Reef, topped by a radome and solar panels, saying the purpose of the platform and radome was unclear, but it could be for military use. “The development is interesting given Bombay Reef’s strategic location, and the possibility that the structure’s rapid deployment could be repeated in other parts of the South China Sea,” ASTI said, “The reef is directly adjacent to the major shipping lanes that run between the Paracels and the Spratly Islands to the south, making it an attractive location for a sensor array to extend Chinese radar or signals intelligence collection over that important sea lane.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel Islands was not in dispute, and there is nothing wrong with China carrying out construction work on its own territory. However, Vietnam also claims the Paracel Islands.

In their paper published by the Central Party School, which trains future and rising officials, China’s Study Times wrote, “Unprecedented outside military interference is the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. Without the strong deterrence power of our military in the South China Sea, then protecting regional peace and stability is merely idle theorizing and falls short of what we would wish.” The paper’s authors go on to say there must be a greater role for non-military actors in the South China Sea, and “facilities on the reefs and islands of the South China Sea should be more civilian and less military,” meaning more focus on building lighthouses, civilian airports, maritime search and rescue, scientific research and weather forecasting. “Just as the Chinese government has repeatedly stressed, after the completion of the island facilities, they will actively provide relevant public security products and services to regional countries,” the paper said, to help the international community with counter-terror and anti-piracy operations, to jointly safeguard peace and security in the South China Sea.

An influential Chinese state-run newspaper said China should put more focus on building civilian facilities on islands in the South China Sea and less emphasis on the military to soothe regional fears about China’s intentions.