A US-based think tank said on Monday (27 March) that China had almost finished major infrastructure construction on the artificial islands of the South China Sea and now Beijing could deploy warplanes and other military hardware there at any time.

The construction done on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands feature naval, radar, air and defence facilities, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said.

The director of the think tank, Greg Poling, cited new satellite pictures that were taken earlier this month and said the images showed new radar antennas on Fiery Cross and Subi.

"So look for deployments in the near future," he was quoted as saying by Reuters. The think tank said the three air bases on Spratly Islands and another one on Woody Island towards the north could possibly allow Beijing's military aircraft to operate over almost all of South China Sea.

According to the ATMI, the surveillance and early-warning radar facilities at the Cuarteron, Subi and Fiery Cross reefs and the Woody Islands provided it with similar radar coverage.

Beijing had deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles more than a year ago at Woody Island and installed anti-ship cruise missiles at least once, it said.

China had also constructed shelters with retractable roofs for mobile launchers at the three reefs on Spratly Islands and aircraft hangars at Fiery Cross to accommodate 24 war planes and three large planes.

Beijing claims at least 90% of the resource rich South China Sea, which sees a third of the world's maritime traffic. Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims on parts of the disputed waterway.

However, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently said that his country was not aiming to militarise the South China Sea and that the placement of the defence equipment was there for 'freedom of navigation'.

South China Sea tensions
A satellite image shows what CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says appears to be anti-aircraft guns and what are likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on the artificial island Johnson Reef in the South China Sea Digital Globe via Reuters