Beijing has announced plans to put two more lighthouses in the disputed South China Sea into operation by the end of the year, state media has reported.
Construction on lighthouses on Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs–both in the contested Spratly Island chain–is being rushed, and will provide navigational gational services to ships in the vicinity, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Monday.
The report came ahead of the holding of a major trilateral naval drill to start on Friday and involving Japan, India and the United States in the waters off the east coast of Okinawa Prefecture, the Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) said in a news release on Tuesday.
The large-scale exercises, called Malabar and scheduled to run through June 17, are part of an annual event that since last year has included Japan as a permanent member.
In the South China Sea, Beijing has used massive land reclamation projects to build man-made islands on both reefs.
On Mischief Reef, it has reclaimed approximately 5.5 sq. km of land, while adding infrastructure that includes work begun in January on an apparent airstrip, according to data compiled by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Fiery Cross, another of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, is also home to an airfield and military-grade infrastructure.
The lighthouse on the east end of Mischief Reef, which Xinhua said is over 60 meters high, is one of the tallest structures in the Spratlys, which China calls the Nansha Islands.
A modern hospital was also due to be completed on Fiery Cross by the end of this month, the report said.
Remote technology will be used for consultations.
The Xinhua report called the South China Sea “a critical maritime corridor linking the Pacific and Indian oceans” but claimed that “high traffic density, complex navigation conditions, a severe shortage in rescue forces have combined to threaten navigation safety and hinder regional economic and social development.”
Beijing has said the infrastructure it is building in the South China Sea is civilian and will help prevent ships from striking rocks and reefs and aid lost fishermen.
But some observers have expressed concern that having lighthouses in the disputed waters could boost Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over the region, which the United States and its allies say is being militarized by China.
In April, China announced that it had begun operating a lighthouse on Subi Reef, which is also in the Spratly archipelago.
Beijing lays claim to most of the resource-rich South China Sea, which is also home to key sea lanes through which $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.
Aside from the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam also have overlapping claims in the waters.
The lighthouse announcements come ahead of a key ruling by an international tribunal on the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.
The court is widely expected to rule in favor of the Philippines in the coming weeks.
Off Okinawa, the joint naval drills among Japan, India and the United States, which will focus on anti-submarine warfare and air-defense training, are likely to bolster ties between the three allies amid Beijing’s militarization of the disputed South China Sea and its repeated incursions into Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea.
The East China Sea is home to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyus.
Tokyo participated in the 2007 Malabar exercises hosted by India but, after strong protests by China against the inclusion of Japan and Australia, it has taken part in the drills only four other times.
The MSDF will dispatch its new Hyuga “helicopter carrier,” as well as P-3C and P-1 patrol planes, and US-2 rescue aircraft to the drills.
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, will also take part in the exercises.
In December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian leader Narendra Modi agreed that Japan would take part in the naval drills on a regular basis.
At the sidelines of the Shangri-la dialogue in Singapore on Friday, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and his Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar, also agreed to boost trilateral cooperation with the US amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region, Kyodo News reported.