China Has Weapons on at Least 3 Islands in South China Sea: U.S Official

China has weapons stationed on at least three of the islands it built in the South China Sea, Admiral John Aquilino told the Associated Press Sunday.

Aquilino, the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander, said the artificial islands have been armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, fighter jets and laser and jamming equipment in a display of Chinese military might.

"I think over the past 20 years we've witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC [People's Republic of China]," Aquilino told the AP. "They have advanced all their capabilities, and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region."

The South China Sea has been subject to territorial disputes between nations including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank. There are an estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the region, and countries began to stake their claims on islands and areas in the South China Sea as early as the 1970s.

Chinese Weapon Buildup
Chinese weapons are on at least three of the islands the country has built in the South China Sea, a top U.S. military commander said. Above, the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander, Admiral John Aquilino, looks at videos of Chinese structures and buildings on board a reconnaissance plane flying over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Sunday. Aaron Favila/AP Photo

The artificial islands built by China nearly a decade ago are part of its efforts to increase its territorial claims in the region. Aquilino told the AP that the militarization of those islands goes against Chinese President Xi Jinping's earlier commitments to not turning the islands into military bases.

It is not yet known if China will attempt to militarize more islands than the three it has already armed, which are named Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross, Aquilino said. Missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other types of facilities appear to have been fully constructed on the three islands, he told the AP.

"The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores," he said. "They can fly fighters, bombers—plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems."

About $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year through the South China Sea, the AP reported. The U.S., while not competing with China and other nations for territory in the South China Sea, has had its Navy ships and aircraft patrol the international waters and airspace for decades to promote free navigation.

Any civilian or military plane that flies over the area could easily end up in the range of the missile systems on the Chinese islands, Aquilino said

"So that's the threat that exists, that's why it's so concerning for the militarization of these islands," he told the AP. "They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace."

China has said that its military strength is a defensive tactic aimed at protecting its sovereign rights, even as it revamps its armed forces. It has increased defense spending for years and now has the second-largest defense budget in the world, the AP reported.

Newsweek reached out to China's Foreign Ministry for comment but did not hear back by publication time.

Update 03/21/22, 10:05 a.m. ET: This story was updated with additional information and background.