Philippine ‘within striking distance’: China seen gearing up for full naval base operations on Fiery Cross Reef

A Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force Y-20 transporter was spotted on Kagitingan Reef on Dec 25, 2020.
A Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force Y-20 transporter was spotted on Kagitingan Reef on Dec 25, 2020.PHOTO: KEN JOYCE/LINKEDIN

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - China's biggest military transport plane landed recently on Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross) in the West Philippine Sea, giving a glimpse of what could happen if the Chinese base there becomes fully operational.

A Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Y-20 transporter was spotted on Kagitingan Reef on Dec 25, Hong Kong-based news agency South China Morning Post reported on Friday (Jan 1).

Satellite images of the Chinese plane's presence on the reef were posted on LinkedIn by Ken Joyce, director of product management of American space technology company Maxar Technologies. The plane was not observed loading or unloading cargo.

The report identified the Y-20 built by the Xian Aircraft Industry Corporation as the biggest aircraft in China's military fleet.

Kagitingan Reef was said to be the base of one of the districts named by China in the West Philippine Sea. This had been protested by the Philippine government.

Maritime expert Professor Jay Batongbacal said the deployment was probably "to test the plane or airfield equipment, or to deliver supplies or personnel."

While Kagitingan Reef is the farthest Chinese man-made reef from the Philippines, Batongbacal said an airbase built there by China would become a bigger threat once it becomes operational and hosts PLA Air Force squadrons.

"Naval base has been operational for quite some time, and currently support Chinese military or paramilitary maritime forces operating in South China Sea," he told Inquirer.net.

"Full operational base would place all major Philippine cities, ports, airports or military bases within striking distance of Chinese air power," he said.

China in recent years had transformed reefs and islands into outposts fitted and equipped with harbours, airstrips, missile shelters and communications facilities which expanded its ability to monitor its and rivals' activities in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims to almost entirely own.

The 2016 decision by the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled that Beijing's claims have no basis and its South China Sea construction frenzy was illegal.