Isaac Stone Fish and Keith Johnson, Foreign Policy
16 April 2015
New satellite photos show that China's construction of an airstrip on disputed islands is further along than previously thought.
China is close to completing the construction of an airstrip on a tiny outcrop in the South China Sea, heightening its ability to project power regionally from the disputed waters and further raising the stakes in an increasingly tense showdown between Beijing, its neighbors, and the United States.
New satellite images provided to Foreign Policy show advances in the construction of a strip of pavement on the Fiery Cross Reef, which sits near the southern end of contested waters in the South China Sea, several hundred miles from the Philippines. Fiery Cross is part of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago whose territory is claimed in part or in whole by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. The photos, the most recent of which is from April 11, show approximately 3,000 feet of completed runway in various shades of green, blue, and gray.
The photos were provided by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a research arm of the Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“The ability to land any kind of plane on the reef significantly improves China’s ability to patrol the area and enforce its claims on the South China Sea,” said AMTI Director Mira Rapp-Hooper.
China’s reef-building spree, including massive dredging to turn atolls into artificial islands, was reported by various media outlets, including FP, in February. On April 16, the New York Times and other media reported images of Chinese construction on Fiery Cross Reef taken in late March that showed the long-rumored airstrip taking shape. The April images obtained by Foreign Policy reveal even more work done on the reef, including an expansion of the airfield.
China claims the majority of the strategically important South China Sea, a 1.4 million-square-mile area of the Pacific Ocean bordered by China to the north, and by several Southeast Asian nations to the east, west, and south. Top U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama and senior Navy leaders, have recently sounded the alarm over the aggressive Chinese posture in the region, especially the reef reclamation efforts that have come to the fore over the past six months. Earlier this month, Obama decried China’s apparent use of “size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, denounced China’s “great wall of sand” in a speech in late March in Australia.
In November, the analysis firm IHS Jane’s released photos showing that Beijing was reclaiming an island out of Fiery Cross that would be large enough to support an airstrip roughly 10,000 feet long. The new images, which AMTI purchased from the commercial satellite firm DigitalGlobe, show that building of that airstrip has begun in earnest.
A Feb. 14 photo shows markings in the sand for an airstrip, but no pavement. In mid-March, the pavement extended 958 feet and the total runway length was 1,525 feet. By April 11, the airstrip, the apron, and other supporting structures were visible. “It is likely that the airstrip will be finished soon,” said Rapp-Hooper.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told an April 15 congressional hearing that China’s “aggressive” reclamation activities, including the possibility of a new airfield, will increase Beijing’s military capability in the region. He also warned of the possibility that China would declare an air defense zone over the South China Sea. In November 2013, China declared the creation of an air defense zone over the East China Sea, raising tensions between China, Japan, and Japan’s close ally the United States. Declaring a zone over the South China Sea, as Chinese scholars and retired military officials have suggested, could raise tensions with the United States even further. And the airstrip would help.
“It expands their ability to operate in the South China Sea, including monitoring the area and potentially denying access to others,” a senior Obama administration official recently told Foreign Policy.
The construction of an airstrip on Fiery Cross will not be China’s first in the area; it already has a little-used airfield on Woody Island in the Paracels, another small island chain in the South China Sea, which it completed in 1990. But it could be potentially very important for bolstering China’s fundamental strategy, which is predicated upon keeping the
U.S. Navy as far away from its shores as possible thanks to a cocktail of land-based aviation, submarines, and batteries of ship-killing missiles.
Garrisoning Fiery Cross, and importantly adding an all-purpose airstrip, extends China’s potential military reach: The 10,000 foot runway would be long enough to serve nearly all aircraft in the Chinese military.
China is not the first country to build an airstrip on the Spratlys – in fact, with the exception of the small nation of Brunei, it’s the last of the claimant states to do so. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all have airstrips on the Spratlys, which vary widely in size and complexity, though all appear to be far less substantial than China’s.
“There’s a lot of capacity building going on,” said Isaac Kardon, an affiliated scholar at NYU Law’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, who researches South China Sea issues. “It’s just that China is building more capacity than anyone else.” The foreign affairs department of Hainan province, the Chinese province which administers Fiery Cross, didn’t respond to a request for comment. China’s navy could be not be reached for comment.
The Philippines has loudly called for more support from other nations, especially the United States, to stand up to what it sees as China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Indonesia this week said it wanted additional training exercises with the U.S. Navy in parts of the South China Sea near China’s claims.
Chinese media hasn’t shied away from reporting on the building project on Fiery Cross, or the development of the island. In late March, an article on the Chinese news site iFeng reported that soldiers on Fiery Cross – which the Chinese call Yongshu – now have access to 4G web services, so that soldiers stationed on the island could “share the beautiful scenery.” The Chinese newspaper International Finance Daily estimated that China spent roughly $12 billion building the man-made parts of Fiery Cross, not including the structures on the island.
While China’s Foreign Ministry has said the islands would be used for unspecified military defense purposes, it has played down the military implications of its activities. In early April, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the reef reclamation is meant to make it easier to carry out disaster-response operations, such as search-and-rescue flights and responding to typhoons.
Many analysts, however, are skeptical. “This is not some humanitarian undertaking in order to provide more mobility for their humanitarian assistance. This is a way of projecting a defensive perimeter – period and end of story,” said Bryan McGrath, deputy director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.
He said it could help China deploy aircraft, surface-to-surface missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and air defense systems. “In doing so, you keep the cavalry – i.e., the U.S. Navy – even further away than if you were simply projecting that defensive perimeter from your own mainland,” McGrath said.
To be sure, some U.S. analysts see less threat from Chinese reclamation activity. M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on Asian maritime disputes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, questions whether isolated airfields without a full panoply of supporting structures such as refueling and maintenance facilities would do much to bolster China’s military reach. At the same time, he said, they would remain vulnerable to any U.S. attack. Furthermore, they would also be vulnerable to weather.
“A major typhoon could wash all this away,” agreed Rapp-Hooper.
The war of words over 10,000 feet of concrete on Fiery Cross underscores the degree to which airstrips are and have long been the currency of power projection in the vast distances of the Pacific. In World War II, Japanese construction of an airfield on Guadalcanal prompted the U.S. Marines to launch their first ground attack of the Pacific War. Likewise, the need for airfields dictated much of Adm. Chester Nimitz’ island-hopping advance through the Central Pacific, grabbing launching pads in the Marshalls, Marianas, and eventually the Ryukyu island chains to enable both local air superiority and long-range bombing of the Japanese home islands. Even in Europe, strategically located airfields as far apart as Iceland, the Azores, and Malta played a crucial role in fighting German submarines and attacking Axis supply lines. More recently, Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean has been a key base for long-range U.S. air strikes in the Middle East.
Ironically, despite decades of advances in military technology, airfields are as important as ever, because today’s jets have relatively short ranges. From China’s Hainan Island to the Spratlys is a distance of almost 600 miles; Chinese air forces would be operating at the end of their tether in any showdown in the area.
But building an airstrip on Fiery Cross essentially gives Beijing a forward-positioned, unsinkable aircraft carrier in the heart of the South China Sea. By the same token, pushing the Chinese defensive perimeter nearly 600 miles away from the coast would make it that much harder for U.S. Navy carrier strike groups with short-range air wings to intervene without risking losing a multi-billion dollar capital ship.