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Satellite Images Show Apparent Aircraft Hangers On Chinese Artificial Islands

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There are new signs that Beijing is beefing up its military capabilities in the South China Sea. Fresh satellite images appear to show the construction of military aircraft hangars on three artificial islands built by China. These are hangars capable of holding bombers, and they raise concerns about a military escalation in this disputed area. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For two years, Gregory Poling has had a front-row seat to Beijing's movements in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Poling is the director of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He spent months analyzing commercial satellite pictures that first showed China turning reefs into islands, then the construction of military buildings, ports and 10,000-foot airstrips.

GREGORY POLING: And now what we're seeing is the smoking gun so to speak.

NORTHAM: Poling says new images released late July indicate China is building huge hangars able to handle most military aircraft on three of the largest reefs.

POLING: This is maybe the most compelling shot we have up right now. It's at Mischief Reef. We're talking about 16 hangars for fighter jets, plus space for three or four much larger aircraft bombers, refueling tankers, heavy-lift transport aircraft, etc.

NORTHAM: Poling says it's a clear sign China is militarizing the artificial islands.

POLING: When this is completed, there will be nothing that the Chinese Air Force flies that could not land and shelter on these islands. There's no way you could look somebody in the eye and say these are for civilian purposes.

NORTHAM: And yet, Beijing does maintain its buildup of the artificial islands is for civilian use or military defensive purposes. And last September, Chinese President Xi Jinping on a visit to the White House went so far as to say China does not intend to pursue militarization of the artificial islands. State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau says the satellite images fly in the face of that statement.

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ELIZABETH TRUDEAU: It also calls into question China's willingness to abide by President Xi's statement last September - that China does not intend to militarize its outpost.

NORTHAM: An international court recently rejected China's claims of sovereignty in the region. There are concerns China's moves now could further exacerbate tension. Already there are reports Vietnam has deployed missile systems on several of its outposts in the same region in the wake of this new round of satellite images.

MICHAEL MCDEVITT: Once these island bases were built, what they've essentially done is tipped the military balance decidedly in China's favor.

NORTHAM: Michael McDevitt is a retired Navy rear admiral now with the Center for Naval Analysis. He says it doesn't appear any Chinese military planes or troops have landed yet on the artificial islands, but that could change in a heartbeat.

MCDEVITT: Once the infrastructure is there, all you need is a mission order to go. In a day or two, they could have a full-up round of a functioning military base with airplanes and missile defenses and cruise missiles and Coast Guard cutters.

NORTHAM: In the meantime, analysts are continuing to pore over satellite photos, trying to determine the purpose of still unidentified structures on the large reefs. They could be for radar or surface-to-air missiles. It may become clear in the next batch of images. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.