Beijing/Washington: China is stealthily and rapidly building its first airstrip on an artificial island in disputed South China Sea (SCS) waters capable of landing large military aircraft, new satellite images show, a move likely to escalate regional tensions over the vexed issue.
Satellite imagery captured on March 23 shows a paved section of runway 503 metres by 53 metres on reclaimed parts in the northeastern side of Fiery Cross Reef, which China began to turn into the Spratly Islands in late 2014. China’s island building at Fiery Cross Reef has created a landmass that is capable of housing a runway about 3,000 metres long, according to IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.
The imagery, provided by Airbus Defence and Space, also shows China building islands on Subi Reef that if linked up would provide enough land for another airstrip. Paving and ground preparation of other sections of the runway has also begun further along the island. In addition, workers have paved about 400 metres by 20 metres of apron. According to Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – that analysed March 17 images taken by DigitalGlobe – the runway is more than one-third complete.
CSIS says When in operation, it will be able to “accommodate almost any type of aircraft that China would want to land”. “Before this construction China lacked the refuelling and resupply capabilities to reach the southern part of the South China Sea.
“While they have not yet been built, Fiery Cross should be big enough to accommodate hangar facilities for Chinese aircraft,” it added. Beijing is also installing port facilities, which may be capable of docking military tankers, the CSIS said. China claims almost all of the SCS as its part which is hotly contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The contention over the SCS recently increased, with US President Barack Obama saying that China is using its “sheer size and muscle” to push around smaller nations in the SCS. His comments came after Beijing unveiled details of its plan for building and maintenance projects on some of its islands there and drew strong reaction from the communist giant which said America has the “biggest muscle” in the world.