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Beijing has spent years transforming islands and reefs in the south china sea on military bases and airfields, but such territory could be vulnerable to attack and almost indefensible in the event of war, a new report warns.

The bases are “lonely in the distant sea” and far from both the Chinese mainland and other islands in the vast disputed waters, which span some 3.3 million square kilometers, he said. Merchant and naval ships, a Beijing-based magazine published by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, which supplies the People’s Liberation Army.

“The islands and reefs of the South China Sea have unique advantages in safeguarding national sovereignty and maintain a military presence in the open sea, but they have natural weaknesses with respect to their own military defense, “he added.
DigitalGlobe images of the Subi reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group, claimed by Beijing. (Getty)
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, and since 2014 has built small reefs and sandbars in the shape of artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems, prompting protests from the other governments. At least six other governments also have overlapping territorial claims on the disputed waterway: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The United States, which considers China’s claims illegal, has responded Navigate warships near Beijing-claimed or occupied features, in what it calls freedom of navigation operations. Washington and its allies, including Australia, say such patrols enforce the right of free passage in international waters, while China argues they are violations of its sovereignty.

Under international law, whoever owns the disputed chain of islands in the sea will have the rights to all the resources in its nearby waters, such as fish, oil and gas. More generally, whoever controls this sea will also have power over one of the world’s most valuable trade routes: it hosts a third of all global shipments.

A file photo of US Navy ships conducting freedom of navigation missions through the South China Sea, a waterway that Beijing has claimed. (AP)

But while distant bases expand Beijing’s control over the area, they are also far from being helped in the event of military action. Merchant and naval ships He gave the example of Fiery Cross Reef, which is 1000 km from Sanya, a city on Hainan Island, just off the southern coast of China, and 800 km from the Paracel Islands, also controlled by Beijing.

“Even if the support fleet rushes at the highest speed, it will take more than a day to catch up,” the report noted.

While some islands are equipped with runways, coverage across the sea is limited, and most of the fighter jets that could be deployed would have a hard time reaching another island fast enough to be effective, spending most of the of its fuel flying the long distances between bases. Beijing currently has two aircraft carriers in operation, which could theoretically be deployed in the South China Sea, but should also be within range at the time of any incident.

The bases, the report added, are highly vulnerable to ambushes, given their remote locations, and could be targeted by both US and Japanese long-range missile systems, or by naval forces in the region. And even if the islands themselves were not attacked, they would be easy to blockade, depriving the forces of their supplies.

Satellite image of Woody Island in the Paracel island chain in the South China Sea taken in November 2017 shows two Chinese Y-8 military transport aircraft.  The Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says China has undertaken new deployments of military aircraft to the island in recent weeks.  Major construction work took place at other outposts in the disputed South China Sea during 2017.
Satellite image of Woody Island in the Paracel island chain in the South China Sea taken in November 2017 shows two Chinese Y-8 military transport aircraft. (AAP)

“The shelters on the islands lack vegetation, natural rock and soil and other covers, and the altitude is low, while the groundwater level is high. Personnel and resources cannot be stored underground for long,” he says. the report, adding that any shelters built on the bases would have “very limited” anti-strike capabilities.

There are also other issues that make defending the islands exceptionally difficult, said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst for defense strategy and capacity at the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy.

“The harsh environmental conditions in the South China Sea (salt water corrosion, bad weather) make it almost impossible to deploy anything on the islands in a way that allows them to defend these bases,” he said, adding that enormously expensive, complicated the planes would be almost useless “within a week or so on these islands.”

He said that while some islands may be effective as firing platforms, they would be among the first targets if a conflict were to occur in the South China Sea, and it is “simply physically impossible to build an island that is essentially defensible,” given the type of reefs and sandbars originally there.

The US island territory of Guam, which has major military bases, would also be vulnerable to attack, says a report. (Rick Cruz / The Pacific Daily via AP, file) (AP / AAP)

“What the Chinese are trying to do is annex an international maritime space, to control and own the international waters, and to do that they need to have a permanent presence there,” said Dr. Davis. “But it’s becoming clear that while they may have been enough to make the territorial claim, they’re not really a practical long-term step because they can’t actually defend those bases.”

Of course, Beijing can rely on the fact that any attack on a base in the South China Sea, even an outpost deemed illegal under international law, would be tantamount to an act of war against a nuclear power with vast military resources. . The threat of retaliation may be enough to prevent island bases from facing any attack.

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Nor would China be the only country with vulnerable bases far from its mainland that could be wiped out by early attacks. The US island of Guam and the Japanese island of Okinawa, where there are major US air bases, are within range of a Chinese missile strike, something that Beijing has reminded Washington of in the past.

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