Wall Street Journal on September 16, 2015, reported that satellite images showed that China continued building on Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Excerpts below:

A report published earlier this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies contains high-definition photos of Chinese-controlled reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands taken in early September. The images suggest China’s island-building efforts are ongoing, and that China could soon have three airfields in the area, according to CSIS.

China reclaimed hundreds of acres of land at seven different reefs it occupies in the Spratlys in 2014. The U.S. and other countries in the region fear China might use the reefs as bases for military aircraft in an attempt to enforce an air-defense identification zone in the South China Sea. The U.S. has called for a moratorium on land reclamation in disputed areas as a way to reduce tensions. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s statement at a summit of regional leaders in Malaysia last month that China had halted reclamation efforts appeared designed to calm anxieties in the region.

The satellite images released this week indicate dredging activity continues on two Spratly features: Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.

The northernmost of the Spratly reefs where China is reclaiming land, Subi Reef was a barely visible speck in the ocean as recently as 2012 (see interactive above). According to CSIS’s Bonnie Glaser, images from early September show dredgers widening an access channel to the inner part of the reef and dumping the sediment onto areas next to recently rebuilt sea walls. The images also show sand grading on Subi that could indicated construction of an airstrip, CSIS says.

Like Subi, Mischief Reef existed mostly underwater in 2012. Now, it boasts multiple buildings, at least two concrete plants and a flat rectangular area roughly 3,000 meters long that could be the site of a future airstrip, according to CSIS. Here, too, photos show dredgers working to widen an access channel, Ms. Glaser writes.

Earlier satellite photos confirmed that China has already built one airstrip on the Spratlys’ Fiery Cross Reef that could be big enough for fighter jets, transport planes and surveillance aircraft. CSIS researchers Michael Green and Zack Cooper write that the U.S. could “neutralize” China’s bases in the Spratlys in the event of a conflict, but “doing so would require a concerted effort from U.S. forces.”

The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The U.S. thus has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the area, Washington argues.

Comment: The Wall Street Journal article has an excellent map of the Spratly Islands and presents fact on the different reefs and islands in the group. The aggressive construction by China on the Spratlys could be the first step in a strategy of geopolitical expansion into the Pacific Ocean. A common forward strategy of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines to monitor and challenge this is necessary and something the next US president will have to deal with in 2016.


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