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White House warns China on growing militarization in South China Sea

The White House warned Beijing on Thursday that there will be consequences for its growing militarization in the disputed South China Sea.

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Ben Westcott, Ryan Browne
Zachary Cohen (CNN)
(CNN) — The White House warned Beijing on Thursday that there will be consequences for its growing militarization in the disputed South China Sea.

US intelligence assessed that there is a high probability the Chinese military deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to three islands in the region.

A US defense official told CNN that intelligence analysts think missiles were put on some of the Spratly Islands during recent exercises. The Chinese conducted those exercises last month; the official added it is not entirely clear whether the missiles remain.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday that the United States has "raised concerns" with the Chinese. "We're well aware of China's militarization of the South China Sea," she said.

"There will be near-term and long-term consequences, and we'll certainly keep you up to date," she added.

Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White reaffirmed the United States' commitment to the international waters. She said the Chinese must understand that "they cannot, and should not, be hostile, and understand that the Pacific is -- is a place in which much commerce goes through. And it's in their interest to ensure that there's a free navigation of international waters."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his nation has been involved in peaceful construction in the islands, which includes "the deployment of necessary national defense facilities."

"The relevant deployment targets no one. Anyone with no invasive intention will find no reason to worry about this," Wang said. "We hope that the relevant party could view this matter in an objective and calm way. "

He said China has "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands.

CNBC first reported the Chinese military had deployed the weapons systems to islands east of the Philippines on Thursday, quoting a source with knowledge of US intelligence reports.

Hotly contested region

If confirmed, the move would mark the first Chinese missile deployment in the Spratly Islands, a series of small inlets and reefs that Beijing has slowly built into militarized, artificial islands.

The South China Sea is one of the most contested regions in the world, with overlapping territorial claims by China, the Philippines and Vietnam, among several others.

According to CNBC, the YJ-12B anti-ship missiles would be able to strike ships up to 295 nautical miles away from the artificial islands.

Beijing previously announced in 2016 it had already deployed similar weapons to Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, on the northwestern edge of the South China Sea.

Point of no return, expert says

The militarization has alarmed countries both in the region and around the world, prompting freedom of navigation operations by the US Navy to assert its right to travel in international waters.

"The United States has long raised concerns about the militarization of outposts on disputed features in the South China Sea," said a State Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. "China's leadership has publicly pledged not to pursue militarization in the disputed Spratlys. We are concerned that China is not acting in accordance with this pledge."

"China and other claimants should cease activity that is inconsistent with their commitments under the 2002 Declaration of Conduct to refrain from actions that would 'complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,'" the official said.

Speaking during a visit to Australia on Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was important not to have any one "hegemony" in the region.

"What's important is to preserve a rules-based development in the region, especially the Indo-Pacific region and to preserve the necessary balances," he said.

But China's steady military buildup on the islands is reaching a "point of no return," Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' Maritime Security Program, told CNN

"There is no way we can reverse all these ongoing additions, it will be up to China. They will decide whether they will deploy these systems or withdraw these systems. All we can do is manage it," Koh said.

China's unmovable aircraft carriers

Beijing claims an enormous swath of territory through the center of the sea, and has attempted to reinforce its hold on the area by creating and militarizing artificial islands in the Spratlys and the Paracels.

Koh said China's string of militarized islands -- equipped with airfields and radar facilities -- have become like a series of immovable aircraft carriers.

He said that the missiles will allow China's armed forces to form "a multilayer military umbrella over the South China Sea," with interlocking sensors and weapons systems.

According to CNBC, China has deployed the missiles to Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef in the Spratlys.

Satellite imagery had previously emerged of China building installations to hold these missiles, said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"This is exactly what we have expected the Chinese to do," she said. "Next thing we'll see is fighter aircraft to deploy, probably on rotation, then they'll begin exercises near the islands. I just think that (Beijing) believes everybody, including the claimants, understands this is inevitable."

Rapid militarization

It is just the latest example of Beijing tightening its hold on the South China Sea in recent years, as the world's attention focused farther north, on the Korean Peninsula.

In April, the Wall Street Journal reported US officials had confirmed China had installed military radar jamming equipment on the Spratly Islands.

The same month, Australian warships en route to Vietnam were challenged by the Chinese navy as they traversed the South China Sea, leading Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to assert Australia's right to travel international waters.

Hanging over everything was a massive display of Chinese military might in the sea on April 12, culminating in a parade led by Beijing's only aircraft carrier and personally reviewed by President Xi Jinping.

The United States under the Trump administration has increased the number of freedom of navigation operations near China's artificial islands, but Glaser said it was difficult for the United States to stand up to Beijing with little support in the region.

"(China) believes they can get away with it and they have probably calculated correctly," she said.

"The big question has always been: How do we impose enough costs so we stop the Chinese where they are, and not go any further? And so far we haven't been successful in that."

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