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China is entrenching in its position in the South China Sea. The rising power appears to be constructing an anti-stealth radar system on of the artificial islands in the contested area.

Satellite imagery analysed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative and DigitalGlobe shows Cuarteron Reef extended to 0.2 square kilometres. A lighthouse, communications tower, radar installation, bunker, and a quay for docking are in various states of construction on the artificially enlarged island.

The largest part of the installation appears to be a field covered with evenly spaced 20 metre poles. These would be needed for a high-frequency radar system that could detect objects over the horizon at up to 3,000 kilometres.

High-frequency radar can also detect stealth planes. For now, HF radar cannot be used to guide missiles to targets, but such an installation would provide ample warning to scramble Chinese fighter jets.

The position of the island in the middle of the South China Sea is ideal for monitoring American and allied air activity, a large part of it centred in bases in the Philippines that host US aircraft.

Parts of the South China Sea are claimed by several neighbouring countries, but China is making the boldest moves to established its claims as a reality on the ground. An island near Cuarteron is home to Chinese J-11 jets, while long-range surface-to-air HQ-9 missiles are deployed on another one.

While the various Chinese operations in the South China Sea are frequently too far apart to support each other, they lend credence to the argument that China is fortifying the Sea.