Kristie Lu Stout South China Sea graphic explainer    _00003005.jpg
South China Sea: A virtual explainer
01:55 - Source: CNN

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Hangars can accommodate combat aircraft or surveillance planes

Experts say the new hangars and radar could help China establish an Air Defense Zone

CNN  — 

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 told CNN, and could help China establish a controversial Air Defense Identification Zone in the area.

Images released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI, taken in early March, show nearly completed defense 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.

Though completion of these facilities in early 2017 was expected, the question remains: Where does China go from here?

“I mean, you don’t build facilities like that and then not use them,” Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Yusof Ishak Institute, told CNN.

South China Sea: What’s at stake

A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said 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-defense and self-preservation as recognized by international law,” Hua Chunying said.

A satellite photo of China's artificial island on Fiery Cross Reef, taken on March 9, and highlighted by AMTI.

New hangers, radar almost complete

Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs are the largest of seven artificial islands built by China in the Spratlys.

China claims the majority 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 another four on Fiery Cross Reef. Hangars to accommodate five larger planes, such as bombers, were in the final stages of construction on Mischief Reef.

“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.

Subi Reef, taken on March 14, with new Chinese military infrastructure highlighted, courtesy of AMTI.