Washington: China has installed weapon systems on all seven artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, a US think tank has claimed, despite Beijing promising not to militarise the region.
Images released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, show anti-aircraft guns and other weapon systems that would guard against cruise missiles sitting in hexagonal structures on the islands.
The findings came despite a pledge by the Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing would not militarise the 1.35 million-square-mile waters, the Telegraph reported on Thursday.
China has been rapidly transforming partially submerged reefs in the Spratly archipelago into islands capable of supporting military hardware and receiving warplanes, said the US think tank. The images show new constructions on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs on the Spratly islands.
"It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defence fortifications already constructed at China's smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron reefs," the US think tank said, citing images taken in November.
"These gun and probable close-in weapon system emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defence of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea," it further said.
Richard Bitzinger, a military expert in Singapore, told the Telegraph: "Of course, it shows that China has gone back on its 'promises' not to militarise the islands, or, indeed, the South China Sea."
China had always intended to transform the islands into military bases, or "unsinkable aircraft carriers", Professor Bitzinger added.
"China doesn't have the right to build such islands and declare them sovereign territory in the first place," he said, but Beijing was "preparing not to be unprepared" for a possible conflict in the region.