Beijing: Dozens of aircraft hangars and high-end radar capabilities on China's man-made islands in the South China Sea are almost operational, according to new satellite imagery released by a US-based think tank.
The new facilities will further establish China's military dominance over the highly-contested region, experts said, and could help China establish a controversial Air Defence Identification Zone in the area, reported CNN on Tuesday.
Images released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), taken in early March, show nearly-completed defence infrastructure on three of China's largest artificial islands in the disputed Spratly chain: Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs.
Each of the islands has new aircraft hangers, capable of holding 24 military aircraft, as well as several larger hangars that can hold bombers or surveillance planes, said the report.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday she wasn't aware of the report's details but reiterated the Spratly Islands were Chinese territory.
"Whether we decide to deploy or not deploy relevant military equipment, it is within our scope of sovereignty. It's our right to self-defence and self-preservation as recognised by international law," Hua said.
Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs are the largest of seven artificial islands built by China in the Spratlys.
China claims most of the South China Sea as its territory, despite overlapping claims by a number of other Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam.
Four bigger hangars have already been completed on Subi Reef, AMTI said, as well as four more on Fiery Cross Reef.
Hangars to accommodate five larger planes, such as bombers, were in the final stages of construction on Mischief Reef, reported CNN.
"China's three military bases in the Spratlys and another on Woody Island in the Paracels will allow Chinese military aircraft to operate over nearly the entire South China Sea," AMTI said in a statement.
In addition to the hangars, new radar domes are in various stages of construction on each artificial island, about three arrays on each reef. Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs now all also have shelters for mobile missiles launchers, according to AMTI.
Though the infrastructure is almost completed, no military aircraft has been deployed to the islands yet, said Carl Thayer, a regional security analyst and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, and Ian Storey, an expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Yusof Ishak Institute.
If China deploys aircraft, "there will be pro forma protests from certain countries, Vietnam in particular. There will be grumbling from certain ASEAN members," Storey said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.