While the world’s focus on Asia has been dominated by North Korea and the nuclear crisis that has arisen from Kim Jong Un’s leadership, Beijing has been busy building military facilities on contested islands in the South China Sea, a new satellite imagery shows.
The Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative closely tracks developments in the South China Sea, a hotspot for territorial strifes between multiple Asian countries. The research organization released a series of newly obtained satellite images showing hangars, underground storage, missile shelters, radar arrays and other facilities being constructed on the heavily disputed maritime territory.
The most construction has been on Fiery Cross Reef, just west of the western edge of Dangerous Ground in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, currently occupied by China. Large-scale reclamation activities by the Chinese government have transformed the three natural reefs into a large artificial island supporting a 10,800 ft airstrip, seaport and military garrison. According to Time, the initiative said that multiple hangars, underground structures most likely designated to hold ammunition, hardened shelters for missile platforms, as well as communication and radar facilities have been added to the island.
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The CS Monitor reported on construction on Mischief Reef including missile shelters and radar arrays, new helipads and wind turbines on Tree Island, as well as two large radar towers on Triton Island.
Apart from the reef in the Spratlys, the 72 acres of territory contested with Vietnam and the Philippines have seen extensive militarization since 2014, with China building three 10,000-ft runways on the seven reefs it reclaimed.
A unified response transcending party lines
Despite the U.S. taking a less critical approach to Beijing’s activities in the disputed region in 2017, the newest satellite images showing the extent of construction taking place on the islands has drawn criticism both from the U.S. and its allies. In its November Foreign Policy White Paper, Australia has warned about China challenging America’s position as the dominant power in the region. The paper also states that “friction” between China and Australia is inevitable and that a stable and peaceful Asia is “not assured.”
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for a “freeze” in China’s militarization of disputed island territories, deeming Beijing’s recent actions as “unacceptable.” His remarks come just after his address to the U.N., where he called out China for giving North Korea an economic lifeline and questioned their commitment to resolving what he called “America’s greatest national security threat.”
The clear and discernible danger China’s newly constructed bases pose to the safety of the region have transcended party lines and seem to have homogenized the political landscape across the world. Media outlets on both sides of the political spectrum report on the issue with an equal amount of concern. It seems that the only thing that differs is the solution to the issue each of the political fractions is suggesting.
As reported by Time, Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that he could not comment in detail about the U.S. assessment of the region, but added that “further militarization of outposts will only serve to raise tensions and create greater distrust among claimants.”
Despite the fact that the U.S. does not claim any territory in the South China Sea, it has openly declared its national interest in ensuring that the disputes over the area are resolved. Pentagon spokespeople have confirmed its plans to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight are ensured peacefully and in accordance with international law.
However, China considers the islands its territory and has had harsh reactions to any condemnation coming from the U.S. in the past. According to China Times, Chinese Navy Commander Shen Jinlong reprimanded Australia and its navy after Australian troops staged a large-scale naval exercise in the South China Sea. With Canberra’s latest allegations that Beijing continually seeks to interfere with Australian politics, disputes over China’s maritime military outposts should not be taken lightly.
China’s activities might be part of a bigger plan
While the satellite images depicting the recent Chinese military developments in the South China Sea coming to light just this week, construction on these artificial islands has been heavily underway the entire year.
At the recently concluded 31st ASEAN Summit Meetings in November, leaders of South East Asian nations have reached a consensus with the Chinese government and announced the start of negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. A general framework for the COC has been endorsed back in August 2017, leaving the fine print of the code to be specified.
China has gained a reputation for timing their foreign policy decisions to coincide with ASEAN meetings and using their dominant position in the region as leverage when discussing the code. Beijing has continually avoided even discussing any legally binding clauses that might be included in the more detailed code. According to The Diplomat, Beijing has also used the press surrounding negotiations around the status of the South China Sea to redirect the media frenzy that might arise from their military and foreign policy plans.
With the following ASEAN Summit being scheduled for April 2018, increased construction in the contested area will provide the already disproportionally advantaged China with even more leverage in the negotiations.