Beijing steps up building in South China Sea despite US resistance
China has stepped up its construction of runways in the South China Sea since President Xi Jinping visited Washington in September, underscoring how US efforts to counter China’s assertive stance there appear to be having little effect.
Satellite images of Subi Reef and Mischief Reef obtained by the Financial Times suggest that Beijing will soon complete two runways that will join a newly operational landing strip on a third reef called Fiery Cross in the contested waters.
“The runways at Subi and Mischief Reef are nearly complete. The work at Mischief has gone nearly twice as fast as it did at Fiery Cross Reef on which test flights landed earlier this month,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Washington-based project, which supplied the images.SUBI REEF
Maritime tensions in the South China Sea have mounted in recent years as China has rapidly built a string of man-made islands and taken a more combative stance towards its neighbours, particularly the Philippines. A US Navy warship sailed close to Subi in November to signal it does not recognise China’s claims to the islands.
China insists it will not militarise the islands, which Mr Xi repeated in Washington, and says the runways are for civilian purposes. But many analysts see the rush to build runways that can accommodate fighter jets and long-range bombers as a move to boost power projection in the western Pacific, where the US has long been the dominant naval power.
China recently said it planned to manufacture an aircraft carrier for the first time, as it strives to build a “blue-water navy” that can operate far from shore.The northwest side of Mischief Reef as of January 8, including a 1,900 foot seawall and newly-constructed infrastructure including housing, an artificial turf parade grounds, cement plants, and docking facilities.
China recently conducted civilian test flights on Fiery Cross, raising concerns in Washington. American officials believe that China is conducting the flights to test the runway for the possible use of fighter jets and also to make the facilities operational without making their intentions clear.
A senior official from the Obama administration said the test flights appeared to be part of “a broader pattern of Chinese behaviour to attempt to advance its claims over disputed areas”. The official added that “this pattern of Chinese unilateral activity” exacerbated tensions and undermined regional stability.
“We again call for all claimants to reciprocally halt land reclamation, further development of new facilities, and militarisation on their outposts and instead focus on reaching agreement on acceptable behaviour in disputed areas,” said the official.
While it took China at least seven months to build the runway at Fiery Cross, the landing strip at Mischief is almost complete just four months after Beijing began building. Regional experts interpret the pace of construction at Subi and Mischief as a sign that China intends to continue construction over the objections of the US and its own neighbours.
Mr Poling said the latest development was significant because it would give China more leverage over the Philippines, with which Beijing has the tensest maritime disputes.
It was unclear, he added, if China was honing its ability to build in a remote area far from shore or if it was rushing to finish runways and other facilities ahead of a legal ruling related to its maritime claims. In October, Beijing lost the first round of a big legal battle with the Philippines after an international tribunal based in The Hague agreed to hear a case related to the contested islands.THE CENTRE PORTION OF THE SUBI REEF RUNWAY, DEC 21
Mr Poling said that having a base on Mischief would allow China to keep a close eye on Filipino marines at Second Thomas Shoal and on natural gasfields in the area.
Since 2012, China has repeatedly tried to stop Manila from sending supplies to a tiny group of marines stationed on a ship called the Sierra Madre. The rusty ship was deliberately run aground on the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to reinforce Manila’s claims to the waters. While the ship is practically falling apart, Filipino officials believe it has significant value in that an attack on the vessel would constitute an attack on the country, thereby activating a US-Philippines defence treaty.
The Philippines Supreme Court this week ruled that Manila could proceed with implementing a defence agreement with the US that would allow the Pentagon to station troops and military assets in the south-east Asian nation for the first time since 1991.
While many US analysts raise red flags about China’s activities around the Spratly chain, some experts argue that the fears are overblown.
Dennis Blair, former commander of the US Pacific fleet, said that the strategic importance of Chinese facilities in the Spratlys was exaggerated, in part because of their isolation. “China does not have the capability to assert sea and air control in the seas around the islands,” he said.” [As a result] the situation is quite stable.”