Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 6 December 2020

 

Beijing’s island bases ‘vulnerable to attack’

Military bases that China has built on artificial islands in the South China Sea are too small, too far from the mainland and may be of little use in a conflict. Picture: AP
Military bases that China has built on artificial islands in the South China Sea are too small, too far from the mainland and may be of little use in a conflict. Picture: AP
  • By Richard Lloyd Parry
  • 8 minutes ago 

Military bases that China has built on artificial islands in the South China Sea are too small, too far from the mainland and vulnerable to attack, according to a magazine associated with the Chinese navy.

Naval and Merchant Ships, published by a company that builds Chinese naval vessels, said the sites had a valuable role in asserting Beijing’s claim over the disputed Spratly Islands and in intelligence gathering and reconnaissance.

But it pointed to weaknesses that could render them of little use in a conflict. “These artificial islands have unique advantages in safeguarding Chinese sovereignty and maintaining a military presence in the deep ocean, but they have natural disadvantages in self-defence,” the magazine said.

Between 2014 and 2017 China transformed three disputed tidal reefs into stationary aircraft carriers, equipped with runways, hangars and radar capable of deploying aircraft, including fighter jets, across the South China Sea.

They have surface-to-air missiles and have temporarily hosted anti-ship cruise missiles. Their airfields are capable of receiving fighter jets and have shelters capable of holding missiles.

The magazine, however, said their isolation made them difficult to defend and supply in case of attack. Fiery Cross Reef, one of the bases, is 1,000km (600 miles) from the closest resupply in Hainan island, a journey that would take naval support ships 20 hours.

China’s J-16 fighter jets do not have the range to patrol the area effectively. Because they only have one runway, the bases would struggle to support more than one aircraft at a time.

The island’s low-lying position and lack of physical shelter leaves them vulnerable to high tides and storms, and offers no shelter against missile attack.

The Times

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