Satellite images collected by the Center for International Studies (CSIS) show China is stepping up its efforts to militarize the South China Sea by constructing fortified military aircraft hangars in the Spratlys.
The photos in the CSIS report were taken towards the end of July, just weeks after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague discredited China’s nine-dashed line and extensive claims to the South China Sea.
While China has three operational runways in the Spratly Islands, there is currently no evidence China is storing military aircraft, but that may soon change. The recent CSIS report suggests that with the new hangars, each islet could hold at least 24 Chinese fighter jets, as well as up to three or four large aircraft.
China is building three types of hangars on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef. The smaller ones, which are the most numerous, could easily support China’s J-11 and Su-30 fighter jets. The mid-sized hangars could hold the H-6 bomber, H-6U refueling tanker, Y-8 transport aircraft, and the KJ200 Airborne Warning and Control System plane. The largest hangers could accommodate the Y-20 and IL-76 transport planes, IL-78 refueling tanker, and KJ-2000 surveillance aircraft.
While China may argue that these structures are for civilian use, “they are far thicker than you would build for any civilian purpose,” CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative Director Gregory Poling told The New York Times. Poling added, “They’re reinforced to take a strike.”
MIT professor M. Taylor Fravel said, “China has given itself the option to use the reefs as military facilities, but has not decided yet to what degree it is going to use them. It creates the option for a robust defense of those places or even a power projection.”
Were China to move forward on possible plans to deploy military aircraft to its facilities in the Spratlys, it would essentially complete construction of China’s unsinkable aircraft carriers in this area, and give China greater control over the highly-desirable South China Sea “strategic triangle” created by the Paracels, the Scarborough Shoal, and the Spratlys. Not only would this escalate disputes with other regional claimant states like Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, but it would unquestionably pose a serious threat to America’s “freedom of navigation” operations.
This latest act of apparent militarization demonstrates that China may be preparing to violate the promise President Xi Jinping made last September that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” in the Nansha Islands, China’s name for the Spratly Islands. The evidence provided by the CSIS seems to suggest that China’s intentions have changed.
Xi once said that China should become a great power at sea and strive to protect China’s maritime sovereignty. He also noted that China must never abandon its sovereignty and must never sacrifice its core interests. According to the China Times, Beijing’s attitude is clear: “The Nansha Islands are a Chinese core interest, and no matter what type of pressure or obstacles China encounters, it will never stop.”
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