Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma has said what many fear: China's military build-up in the South China Sea looks as though it is "preparing for World War III".

His blunt statement came during a Senate hearing yesterday discussing the new challenges being presented by Russia and China.

And Senator Inhofe isn't happy about how the world has got to where it's at.

He says the US sat back and watched as China staked its claim on the contested reefs and rocks, and did nothing as it turned them into artificial islands bristling with weapons and fortifications.


And the way it has muscled-in on this disputed territory has resulted in a significant change to the balance of power in South East Asia.

"It's like you're preparing for World War III," Inhofe said. "You're talking to our allies over there and you wonder whose side they're going to be on."

He says the fragility of the situation may not be fully appreciated by most US citizens, or the peoples of the world.

"I'm concerned our message is not getting across," said Inhofe, who took over the committee this month.

China, however, is maintaining its facade.

It's launched a media blitz in an attempt to identify its illegal artificial islands as benign 'search and rescue centres'.


Early last year, Chinese state media circulated images of the completed 2.8km square island fortress for the first time after the completion of its land-reclamation and construction works.

Now, Beijing's state media mouthpiece Xinhua says China's Ministry of Transport has officially opened a 'maritime rescue centre' on Fiery Cross Reef.


The reef is disputed territory, also being claimed by the Philippines.

"The centre will offer better support to maritime rescue operations in the southern part of the South China Sea," Xinhua quotes the ministry as saying.

Completed last year, the island now holds more than 100 buildings.

It's the third largest of China's artificial island fortresses.

Beijing says the Fiery Cross supports a weather observatory, ocean and hydrology monitoring stations and environmental restoration facilities. There is also a lighthouse and a hospital.

An airstrip, structures, and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippines. Photo / AP
An airstrip, structures, and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippines. Photo / AP

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), Fiery Cross Reef also has extensive military radar and communications equipment.

China offers no explanation for the presence of numerous fortifications, gun and missile emplacements, hardened aircraft hangars and a military grade runway and port.

Instead, the report highlights the arrival last year of a 'rescue ships' at the facility to take up responsibility for emergency response operations in the area.


"The ship, which had been modified to adapt to the natural conditions in the southern part of the South China Sea, was staffed with eight to 10 rescuers with diving equipment. In October, another rescue ship was sent to the region in replacement," the report reads.

It says the vessels — Nanhaijiu-115 and its sister ship the Nanhaijiu-117 — have rescued 16 people and two ships over eight different emergencies.

What it doesn't say is that the once civilian Chinese Coast Guard was last year integrated under direct military command. It is now virtually indistinguishable from the People's Liberation Army Navy.

The Transport Ministry says Fiery Cross Reef will now be part of the South China Sea rescue bureau".

"It is a measure to implement international treaties and ensure safety of navigation and transport in the South China Sea region," it said.

But it won't be implementing international territorial treaties.

In 2016, Beijing protested the presence of the destroyer USS William P Lawrence as it passed within 22km of the reef. That's the internationally recognised territorial boundary nation's can claim from their sovereign coasts. But China's claim to the South China Sea has been rejected by an international court, and artificial islands are not recognised as sovereign.


Another to testify at this weeks' Senate hearing was Center for a New American Security director of studies Ely Ratner. He raised concerns about China's ongoing disregard for international law.

He cited Beijing's support for Venezuela's illegitimate president, Nicholas Maduro

Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne. Photo / AP
Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne. Photo / AP

"I think it's a harbinger of what a China-led order would look like … in terms of protecting and defending non-democratic regimes and impeding the ability of the international community to galvanise and respond," Ratner said.

"If we don't get our act together in Asia, we're going to see this movie over and over and over again throughout the developing world."

It comes after Australia's defence minister Christopher Pyne openly criticised China for militarising the international waterway.

In a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore on Monday, Pyne said Beijing should use its growing power to inspire regional trust and confidence.

"The building and militarisation of artificial features in the South China Sea, for instance, has not increased regional confidence in China's strategic intentions," he said. "Instead, it has increased anxiety."