New images suggest China militarising Spratlys in South China Sea

Crew members of China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea on May 5.
Crew members of China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea on May 5.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Recent satellite photographs show China appears to have built reinforced aircraft hangars on its holdings in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, a Washington-based think tank said on Monday (Aug 8).

Pictures taken in late July show the hangars constructed on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly islands, have room for any fighter jet in the Chinese air force, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“Except for a brief visit by a military transport plane to Fiery Cross Reef earlier this year, there is no evidence that Beijing has deployed military aircraft to these outposts. But the rapid construction of reinforced hangars at all three features indicates that this is likely to change,” CSIS said in a report.  

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.  

The images have emerged about a month after an international court in The Hague ruled against China’s sweeping claims in the resource-rich region, a ruling emphatically rejected by Beijing.  

The United States has urged China and other claimants not to militarise their holdings in the South China Sea.  China has repeatedly denied doing so, saying the facilities were for civilian and self-defence uses, and in turn criticised US patrols and exercises for ramping up tensions.  

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and nearby waters,” China’s Defence Ministry said in a faxed response to a request for comment on Tuesday.

“China has said many times, construction on the Spratly islands and reefs is multipurpose, mixed, and with the exception of necessary military defensive requirements, are more for serving all forms of civil needs.” 

Ties around the region have been strained in the lead-up to and since the ruling.  China has sent bombers and fighter jets on combat patrols near the contested South China Sea islands, state media reported on Saturday, and Japan has complained about what it has said were multiple intrusions into its territorial waters around another group of islands in the East China Sea.  

The hangars all show signs of structural strengthening, CSIS said. “They are far thicker than you would build for any civilian purpose,” Gregory Poling, director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told the New York Times, which first reported on the new images.

“They’re reinforced to take a strike.”

Other facilities including unidentified towers and hexagonal structures have also been built on the islets in recent months, CSIS said.