A reclamation project started by the Chinese government involves building a large island in an area of international dispute, according to recent satellite images. The emerging artificial landmass is located on Fiery Cross Reef among the Spratly Islands and may likely accommodate China’s first airstrip.
South China Sea and the Spratly Islands are under international dispute with claims alleged by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All but Brunei occupy the islands or built structures to assert clams. Conflicts arise frequently regarding oil extraction, trade routes and fishing rights. Control over the area can affect a nation’s military and economic clout immensely.
Fiery Cross is the fourth Chinese project undertaken in the last 12 to 18 months. So far, the government sponsored new land masses built at Johnson South Reef, Cuateron Reef and Gaven Reef. None of these previous undertakings are as large as Fiery Cross and the impression is that the government and military intend to strong arm into full ownership of the South China Sea.
Satellite images of the artificial island lead to its size being estimated at 1.9 miles long and between 660 to 980 feet wide. Those dimensions can accommodate a runway and apron. Previous structures on the reef included a PLAN garrison with a pier, arms defenses, communication means and a greenhouse, but nothing close to this current undertaking.
Ship tracking also shows the drudging vessels moving landfill and cutting channels in preparation for a new harbor. Estimates reveal the harbor is likely large enough to accommodate warships.
Chinese officials claim that building the large island is part of a benevolent move to create an Asian security system that was independent of the U.S. despite its suspicious location in a disputed area. The report of these plans arose from a group connected with the People’s Liberation Army conference that showcased President Xi Jinping’s intentions for new security architecture. “Asian countries [have] primary responsibility for the security of their region,” stated Vice Foreign Minister, Liu Zhenmin.
Before this construction, the country’s military disadvantage in the region was its lack of an airfield. Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam all maintain airfields in this area. With China willing to use force to assert its claims, there is likely to be alarm over this development.
Amid these tensions, government claims of a unified Asian security plan come off as insincere. China boasts a large military advantage over its opponents and its developments provoke fear, not reassurance. If any of the rival nations hold tight and resist, the nation maintains superior negotiating power due to its military advantage, further feeding a theory that it plans on winning the area through intimidation.
The decision by China to build this large island in the disputed area threatens previous attempts to build a code of conduct to allow trade, fishing, and natural resource access in the South China Sea by all neighboring nations. The U.S. requested that the parties halt their reclamation activities and attempt negotiation, but China responded by declaring it can do whatever it wants in the South China Sea.
By Jocelyn Mackie
IHS Jane’s 360
Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amanda S. Kitchner – Flickr License