WASHINGTON - Recent satellite imagery has shown a marked expansion of China's dredging and land filling at North Island in the disputed Paracels in South China Sea.
The satellite imagery from March 2 shows a new terrain linking North Island with Middle Island, along a long and straight reef structure that could accommodate a runway and parallel taxiway, according to an article on The Diplomat website.
The dimensions of the new terrain were equivalent to those recently built by China at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, said the article.
The new land fill is 12 km north of Woody (Yongxing) Island, the site of a military base and China's sole airport in the Paracels. Woody Island was also the site of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles last month, said the report.
The new land filling operations by China at North Island, first observed in satellite imagery from Jan 9, have in the past two months included dredging of the reef to create the beginnings of a harbour basin, according to the article.
It added that the island-building activities are at too early a stage for their purpose to be discerned.
Lying on the northern edge of the Paracel Islands, 300 km south-east of China's Yulin/Longpo naval base, North Island is well situated for sensors to monitor an area through which Yulin-based surface and submarine vessels must frequently pass.
The reef complex that includes North and Middle islands has a favourable size and geometry for an airstrip, and it occupies a total area of approximately five sq km, said the article.
The land fill area at Fiery Cross, in comparison, is just under three sq km, slightly smaller than Woody Island.
China's ties with Asean states have been strained since its reclamation activities in the South China Sea began in 2014, and recent reports that it had deployed missiles, fighter jets and radar equipment on disputed islands and reefs there.
Tensions have also risen between China and the United States, which has accused Beijing of militarising the region and carried out freedom of navigation exercises close to islands claimed by China.
In a veiled swipe at the US on Tuesday (March 8), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said there are parties now "that stir up trouble and show off their firepower" in the South China Sea.
"But like the tides that come and go, these plots will come to nothing," he said. "History will prove who is the visitor and who is the genuine host."