Wall Street Journal on February 18, 2015 reported that newly released satellite images show a dramatic expansion in China’s construction of artificial islands on disputed South China Sea reefs, intensifying concerns about Beijing’s territorial ambitions. Excerpts below:
The images provide the first visual evidence that China has built an artificial island covering 75,000 square yards—about 14 football fields—and including two piers, a cement plant and a helipad, at a land formation called Hughes Reef, according to experts who have studied the pictures. The reef, which is above water only at low tide, lies about 210 miles from the Philippines and 660 miles from China.
The pictures, taken by a commercial satellite division of Airbus Group and released by IHS Jane’s, a defense intelligence provider, also show that China has made significant progress in building similar infrastructure in two other places, Johnson South Reef and Gaven Reefs, where Beijing’s territorial claims overlap with those of its neighbors.
China appears to be building a network of island fortresses to help enforce control of most of the South China Sea—one of the world’s busiest shipping routes—and potentially of the airspace above, according to experts who have studied the images.
The pace and scale of its South China Sea buildup shows that Beijing, despite having recently reined in its rhetoric and avoided confrontations at sea and in the air, hasn’t tempered its ambitions to project power in the region.
“The Chinese have built up a head of steam on the land reclamation in the South China Sea over the course of 2014; if anything, it looks to be accelerating,” said a senior U.S. official, who described the extent of China’s reclamation work as “unprecedented.”
U.S. officials say they have repeatedly asked China to stop the work, to no avail. Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, conveyed U.S. concerns about the issue on a visit to Beijing this month, according to people familiar with the matter.
China signed a nonbinding agreement with Asean committing to avoid provocative activities in the South China Sea, such as inhabiting previously deserted islands and reefs.
China’s claims overlap with those of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines—a U.S. treaty ally—and many of them have been bolstering defense ties with the U.S. in recent years in response to what they see as Beijing’s enhanced efforts to assert its claims.
The Philippine government has been especially vocal in protesting Chinese construction in contested areas, most recently lodging a formal complaint this month over reclamation it says China is conducting at another site in the Spratlys called Mischief Reef. Philippine officials declined to comment on the new images, and Vietnamese authorities weren’t immediately available to comment.
Many experts and U.S. officials say the Chinese infrastructure is explicitly military in nature, whereas some of its other recent efforts to assert territorial claims have been carried out by its coast guard and fisheries administration.
Some U.S. and regional officials have suggested that China could use the new infrastructure to help enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone similar to the one it established in late 2013 over much of the East China Sea, where its territorial claims overlap with Japan’s. China has said it would establish more air-defense zones but doesn’t have imminent plans to establish one over the South China Sea.
Images published by Jane’s in November show Chinese work in a fourth disputed area, Fiery Cross Reef, which experts including military analysts and academics say is extensive enough to eventually include an airstrip.
The facilities at Fiery Cross Reef could be suitable for that eventually, according to some experts. One possibility is that China would use an airstrip there as a backup for future operations by its first aircraft carrier, which it launched in 2011 and has sent on training operations in the South China Sea.
The facilities will likely be used to “enforce China’s territorial and jurisdictional claims, and bring pressure to bear on warships and coast guard vessels from the other claimants,” said Ian Storey, an expert on the South China Sea at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“It shows that despite recent accommodating rhetoric from Beijing that it seeks to cool tensions in the South China Sea, its policy to assert dominance within the so-called nine-dash line remains fundamentally unchanged.”
A U.N. tribunal is currently hearing a case brought by the Philippines against China over its claims in the South China Sea. However, China is widely expected to ignore the tribunal’s verdict and the U.S. and its allies and partners have few options to prevent Beijing from continuing with its reclamation and construction work.
“The U.S. and its allies and partners can only make declaratory protests that China should halt its activities and exercise self-restraint. China will ignore these protests,” said Carlyle Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “The use of U.S. naval warships would be an escalation and carry risks.”