China May Now Have Operational Airstrip In South China Sea

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Since mid-2013, China has undertaken a massive land reclamation project in the South China Sea aimed at increasing the size of its claimed possessions. So far over 2,000 acres of land have been reclaimed through dredging turning what were small reefs and outcroppings of rock into islands capable of hosting military bases. This is a major cause for concern to other claimant nations and members of the international community who fear the security implications of China’s actions. Under a storm of criticism from other countries, China has recently announced that the majority if its land reclamation work has finished but now the bulk of activity has transitioned into the construction of military facilities. This issue of Chines militarization in the South China Sea is not going to disappear anytime soon unfortunately.

From Reclamation to Building

Recently China has announced that its land reclamation projects had finished on “some islands” in the South China Sea. Some believe the announcement was made to ease tensions with the U.S. prior to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to the U.S. in September. Whatever the case may be, evidence shows that while island reclamation appears to have stopped on five out of seven sites, construction of facilities on the reclaimed land is now picking up steam. Island reclamation continues though at Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, both of which are claimed by the Philippines and satellite imagery from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) confirms this.

Building Construction

While land reclamation appears to be finished at Fiery Cross Reef, construction on the reclaimed land is accelerating. Imagery shows that the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef is nearly complete and might be in service sooner than originally imagined. At 3,000 meters-long, the airfield should be able to accommodate most military aircraft in the Chinese inventory. Earlier in May, a U.S. military commander suggested that the airfield might reach operational capacity by year-end, a prospect which no longer seems to be the case. The reclamation work at the reef has also allowed for the construction of a new harbor that will allow better protection for Chinese vessels. Meanwhile, it would appear that two helipads, aircraft support facilities are being constructed along with possibly a radar tower.

On Johnson South Reef, it appears that two radar towers are under construction along with two already finished helipads and up to three satellite communications antennas. Johnson South Reef had been claimed and occupied by Vietnam up until 1988 when a Chinese attack forced out the Vietnamese. Since then the Chinese have retained control over the reef while Vietnam still controls nearby islands. Construction of facilities also is occurring elsewhere on islands controlled by China.

China’s Intentions

Despite China’s numerous pronouncements that one of the primary purposes of the land reclamation is to create islands which can host maritime support, search and rescue, and meteorological facilities to mariners in the region, China is quite secretive about its work. Recently CBS News crews have been denied access to China’s new islands though Hua Chuying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in response to CBS inquiries “I can tell you for sure that the Chinese government has nothing to hide from the international community.” Obviously the message from Beijing is different than the reality.

China it must be said is playing catch up to other claimant countries in the South China Sea. For example, prior to the construction of the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, China was the only claimant nation apart from Brunei not to have an airfield in the South China Sea. While the construction of the airfield gives China a degree of parity with other countries, the scope of building overall far exceeds the military activities of others. Sidelining the peaceful intentions that China claims, the length of the airfield is unnecessary for civilian aircraft engaged in the search and rescue missions that China claims it seeks to provide; rather the airfield will be capable of handling military aircraft which need the extra take-off and landing space.

A few months ago it was revealed that China has placed artillery on at least one of the reclaimed islands. While this in itself should not be cause for concern due to its limited threat, there is the symbolism provided by it; peace is not the sole goal of China. The number of radar towers and surveillance equipment being built on the islands will provide China with the means to spy on neighbors in the region and will serve to further the hold China has on the islands it already controls and perhaps will provide the means to gain those it wishes to control.

Land reclamation by China has served to increase tension in the South China Sea over the past two years. Now that most of that reclamation work is over, one should not believe that an easing of tensions is in sight. The reclamation project was merely the first part of China’s plans for the South China Sea. Now that the islands have been built and expanded, the militarization of them will proceed. If anything, the status of China in the South China Sea will grow more contentious in the coming months and years.

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