China island-building expands as ASEAN leaders gather in U.S.



China’s South China Sea island-building has expanded into the Paracel Islands, according to satellite photos published as Southeast Asian leaders gathered in California for two days of talks with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Images posted on The Diplomat website show dredging and filling at two new sites in the Chinese-held island chain about 15 km (9 miles) from a Chinese military base on Woody Island. The photos show a helicopter base under construction, according to the article by Victor Robert Lee, an analyst who tracks and analyses China’s land-reclamation efforts using satellite imagery.

The Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, sit northwest of the Spratlys chain, where China’s island- building program has prompted protests from the U.S. and countries with overlapping claims. The new evidence of reclamation came as Obama told leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that the U.S. would seek to build a unified approach to ensure maritime security.

“Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means,” Obama said Monday in his welcoming address at the Sunnylands estate in California.

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea and has over the past two years built 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land in the Spratlys, including a runway and other facilities that could be used for military purposes. The claims clash with those of four ASEAN members, including Vietnam and the Philippines, over a body of water that hosts $5 trillion a year in global trade.

U.S officials have repeatedly requested China and others to stop reclaiming land and halt the militarization of the area. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told ASEAN foreign ministers in August that China had completed its land reclamation and was now focusing on building civilian support facilities there that it would share with other nations.

The latest dredging began sometime after Dec. 2, and was creating terrain on a reef adjacent to North Island, which has been occupied by China since 1950, according to Lee’s article. At China-occupied Tree island — 5.5 kilometers northwest of North Island — a dredger can be seen expanding a port area and piping sediment onto a new area of fill. Satellite images show the work at Tree Island started after Oct. 18.

Last month, the U.S. sent the USS Curtis Wilbur into disputed waters near the Paracels to contest the “excessive” maritime claims of China, Taiwan and Vietnam. It was the second time in less than six months a U.S. naval ship has challenged China with a so-called freedom-of-navigation operation.