By David Brunnstrom
Recent satellite images show China may be installing a high-frequency radar system in the Spratly Islands that could significantly boost its ability control the disputed South China Sea, a US think tank says.
The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies said the images showed that construction of facilities at Cuarteron Reef appeared nearly complete and that the artificial island now covered an area of about 210,500 square metres.
"Two probable radar towers have been built on the northern portion of the feature, and a number of 20-metre poles have been erected across a large section of the southern portion," the report said.
"These poles could be a high-frequency radar installation, which would significantly bolster China's ability to monitor surface and air traffic across the southern portion of the South China Sea."
China's foreign and defence ministries did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The report said the images showed that China appeared to have constructed a buried bunker and lighthouse on the northern portion of the feature, a helipad, communications equipment and a quay with a loading crane.
The report, which based its analysis on satellite images from January and February, said China already had significant radar coverage of the northern part of the South China Sea given its mainland installations and in the Paracel Islands to the northwest of the Spratlys.
Both the US and Vietnam last week expressed concern at China's deployment of advanced surface-to-air missiles on the Paracels.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington would "press China to de-escalate and stop its militarisation" in the South China Sea.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.