WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Recent satellite images show China has begun building its first airstrip in contested territory in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and may be working on another, a leading defence publication reported on Thursday.
IHS Jane's Defence Weekly said the images provided by Airbus Defence and Space taken on March 23 showed the construction work on reclaimed parts of Fiery Cross Reef in the archipelago, territory China contests with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
It said images from earlier in March also showed reclamation work on Subu Reef in the Spratlys creating landmasses that, if joined together, could create enough space for another 3,000m airstrip.
The report said satellite imagery suggested China was also working to extend another airstrip to that length in the Paracel Islands further north in the South China Sea.
Images of Fiery Cross Reef showed a paved section of runway 505m by 53m on the northeastern side of the reef, which China began turning into an island with extensive dredging last year, the report said.
Preparation of other runway sections had also begun further along the island and workers had paved an apron area of about 400m by 20m.
The report said Fiery Cross was capable of housing a runway about 3,000m, well within the parameters of Chinese air force runways.
It said the photos showed further dredging work on the southwestern side of the island and floating cranes consolidating a harbour.
The report comes a day after the US military commander for Asia, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said China could eventually deploy radar and missile systems on outposts it is building in the South China Sea that could be used to enforce an exclusion zone should China move to declare one over the disputed territory.
Last week, the United States warned against militarisation of contested territory in Asia and President Barack Obama accused China of using its "sheer size and muscle" to push around smaller nations after Beijing sketched out plans to use the Spratlys for military defence as well as to provide civilian services that would benefit other countries.
Speaking at a seminar in Washington on Thursday, China's ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said it was "natural" the work would include military defence facilities.
He said there "should be no illusion that anyone could impose on China a unilateral status quo" or "repeatedly violate China's sovereignty without consequences."
In an apparent reference to US air activity, Cui added that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which the United States is not a signatory, did not give anyone the right to "conduct intensive and close-range reconnaissance in other countries' exclusive economic zone".
The United States said it does not take sides in the South China Sea but has called for a freeze on provocative acts.
China claims most of the potentially energy-rich sea, through which US$5 trillion ($6.7 trillion) of maritime trade passes every year.
Western and Asian naval officials have expressed fears that China could try to limit both sea and air navigation once its reclaimed islands are fully established.