After months of speculation, satellite images Thursday confirmed that the China is building an airstrip for military planes on a tiny island in the South China Sea, a move U.S. officials warned will raise tensions with Washington and with U.S. allies in the region.
Satellite images published this week by IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly show significant progress has been made on the 1,600-foot-long runway in the Spratly Islands archipelago between February and March of this year.
The archipelago sits at the center of mounting territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Images first surfaced last year that showed the Beijing was engaging in reclamation work on Subu Reef in the Spratlys, and possibly joining small landmasses to create an island 1.9 miles long and nearly a thousand feet wide.
The move has caused a stir because of the clashing territorial claims and the potential to exploit underwater reserves of crude oil and natural gas. The South China Sea is also a critical global shipping route for $5 trillion of annual trade.
On March 23, Jane’s published images from Airbus Defense and Space that revealed further runway development on reclaimed areas of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago, which are at the center of the disputed area.
Airbus Defence and Space also reported that other images suggest China is working to build another airstrip in the Paracel Islands, further north in South China Sea.
The emergence of the satellite images on Friday came just days after the top U.S. military commander for Asia told Congress that Beijing was making “aggressive” moves by “building a network of outposts to enforce control over most of the South China Sea.”
Other Southeast Asian nations are “increasingly worried” that the developments “will allow China to take de facto control of the surrounding waters,” said Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear III, commander of the Pentagon’s Pacific Command.
American lawmakers also expressed alarm at the development.
“When any nation fills in 600 acres of land and builds runways and most likely is putting in other kinds of military capabilities in what is international waters, it is clearly a threat to where the world’s economy is going, has gone, and will remain for the foreseeable future,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, during a recent congressional briefing.
State Department Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear that America and its Asia-Pacific allies are watching China’s moves in the South Chia Sea with deep concern.
“We do not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarize outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability,” he said.
Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki and his South Korean counterpart, Cho Tae-yong, have also publicly weighed in against China’s moves.
But Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, said U.S. and allied surveillance activity in the region has violated China’s sovereignty and the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea, to which the United States is not a signatory.
He added that China’s construction efforts did not give any nation the right to “conduct intensive and close-range reconnaissance in other countries’ exclusive economic zone.”
In Beijing Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei defended the island reclamation work, which China says is largely to improve living conditions for people in the area and help with weather forecasting and search-and-rescue work.
Such work is “lawful, justifiable and reasonable,” Mr. Hong said, according to an Associated Press report. “It does not target or impact on any other country and we hope that relevant parties can have a correct understanding on that.”