[As I keep saying, China is not that hot. Jan]
- China’s facilities in the disputed Spratly Islands have alarmed its rival claimants, but a military magazine says they have significant weaknesses
- Article argues their size and location makes them hard to defend and their airstrips are too small to be effective
Published: 6:00am, 6 Dec, 2020
China has also built airstrips and other military facilities on the artificial islands. Photo: AP
The artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea
are vulnerable to attack and unlikely to contribute much to any combat mission, a Chinese military magazine has warned.
China has been transforming the reefs and atolls it occupies on the disputed Spratly Islands since 2015, turning them into artificial islands. It has also built airstrips and other military facilities and deployed equipment such as anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems, according to the US think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
These moves heightened fears among rival South China Sea claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which fear the military build-up
could allow Beijing to attack warplanes or shoot down missiles from the facilities
But an article in the latest edition of Naval and Merchant Ships, a Beijing-based monthly magazine, highlighted the artificial islands’ weaknesses in four areas: their distance from the mainland, small size, the limited capacity of their airstrips and the multiple routes by which they could be attacked.
The magazine, published by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, which builds ships for the Chinese navy, also warned that they had yet to achieve any significant offensive capabilities.
“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,” said the article.
The magazine said the islands were deep in the South China Sea and far from the Chinese mainland. It also warned there was no coherent chain connecting them, so it would be difficult to provide support if one came under attack.
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“Take the example of the Fiery Cross Reef. It has a runway now, but it’s 1,000km (600 miles) away from Sanya city in Hainan province.” The distance means that China’s fastest combat support ships would need more than 20 hours to reach the island.
Map of major military facilities inside the Chinese-claimed parts of the South China Sea. Graphic: SCMP
The article also argued that the islands were too far away to deploy the J-16, China’s most advanced multi-role strike fighter, effectively. The fighters could not patrol the area because of the distance and could be easily intercepted or attacked by surface ships.
It continued that most of the islands only had one runway and did not have the space to provide the facilities to support more than one aircraft at a time.
In the event of conflict, this means that a plane unloading or refuelling would have to stay on the runway at all times, preventing other planes from using it.
The airstrips are also close to the ocean, and the article said this left them exposed to damage from tides and tropical weather.
The magazine also said the artificial islands were too small to survive major attacks. Most of the islands are flat and have very limited vegetation or rocks.
This means there is little cover against an attack and the best the Chinese military can do to protect equipment and supplies is build defensive shelters out of materials like steel – which has to be transported from the mainland and cannot withstand a sustained missile barrage.
The article also warned that nearby islands were held by rival claimants, and said that if the US supported allies such as the Philippines or Malaysia in any conflict, the were multiple approaches from which it could attack – such as the Philippine island of Palawan, to the east of the Spratlys, or the Strait of Malacca to the west.