While global attention has been fixated on the North Korean nuclear crisis over the past year, China has further fortified its man-made outposts in the disputed South China Sea in a bid to create “fully functioning air and naval bases,” a think tank said Thursday.
Citing satellite images, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said in a report that Chinese activity in the contested waterway had involved work on facilities covering 29 hectares (72 acres) in the Spratly and Paracel chains, including islands in which Beijing is involved in territorial disputes with neighbors.
“International attention has shifted away from the slow-moving crisis in the South China Sea over the course of 2017, but the situation on the water has not remained static,” the report said. “While pursuing diplomatic outreach toward its Southeast Asian neighbors, Beijing continued substantial construction activities on its dual-use outposts in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.”
The report said China had completed dredging and landfill operations to create its seven new islands in the Spratlys by early 2016, and appeared to have halted such operations in the Paracels in the middle of this year. However, it said Beijing “remains committed to advancing the next phase of its build-up — construction of the infrastructure necessary for fully-functioning air and naval bases on the larger outposts.”
It said China had completed or began work since the start of the year on a number of structures, including administrative buildings, improved hangars, missile shelters, underground storage areas, and large radar and sensor arrays.
Fiery Cross, the most advanced of China’s bases in the waterway and home to one of three military-grade airfields in the Spratlys, saw the most construction this year, including what appeared to be a new high-frequency radar array at the northern end of the island.
Subi Reef had seen tunnels completed that were likely for ammunition storage and another radar antenna array and radar domes, the report added, noting that China was “poised to substantially boost its radar and signals intelligence capabilities” at the islet.
Construction on Mischief Reef included underground storage for ammunition and hangars, missile shelters, and radar arrays.
Smaller-scale work also continued in the Paracel Islands, including a new helipad and wind turbines on Tree Island and two large radar towers on Triton Island.
The report said the work at Triton was “especially important,” given that Triton is the southwestern-most of the Paracels and that the surrounding waters had been the site of recent incidents between China and Vietnam, as well as multiple U.S. freedom of navigation operations, which the U.S. Navy has used to assert what it sees as its right to free passage in international waters.
Woody Island, China’s military and administrative headquarters in the South China Sea, saw two first-time aircraft deployments “that hint at things to come at the three Spratly Island air bases farther south,” the report added.
At the end of October, the Chinese military released images showing J-11B fighters at Woody Island for exercises, while on Nov. 15, AMTI spotted what appeared to be Y-8 transport planes, a type of aircraft that can be used for electronic surveillance.
Washington has accused Beijing of militarizing the waterway, despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to do so, but does not have any claims to territory there. It has, however, called for the peaceful settlement of dispute in the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.
China has also used its increasingly potent military to show off that it refuses to be pushed around in its own back yard. It flew heavy bombers for “combat air patrols” over the contested waters last month, part of what it calls “routine” flights in the strategic waterway.
Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that despite the apparent shift in focus to North Korea, “China’s actions in the South China Sea in 2017 would have been the same regardless.”
Cook said the rise of China-friendly Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, coupled with last year’s international tribunal ruling against Beijing — and its disregard for that decision — had left the ball in China’s court.
Cook, however, cautioned that there could be red lines for continuing to overlook Chinese moves in the waters.
“If China were to begin to build up Scarborough Shoal … both these permissive conditions may change,” he said.