China’s creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea is happening faster than the US and other countires expected. Beijing will be able to extend the range of its navy, air force, coastguard and fishing fleets. Chinese workers are building ports and fuel storage depots as well as possibly two airstrips that experts said would allow Beijing to project power deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
“These reclamations are bigger and more ambitious than we all thought,” said one Western diplomat. “On many different levels it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to counter China in the South China Sea as this develops.”
Satellite analysis published by IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly this week showed a new installation being built on Hughes Reef. It described a “large facility” having been constructed on 75,000 square meters of sand reclaimed since August.
It also published images of Fiery Cross Reef, which now includes a reclaimed island more than 3 km (1.8 miles) long that experts said would likely become a runway.
Work is also well established on Gaven, Cuarteron and Eldad Reefs, with the new dredging taking place on Mischief Reef.
China could keep its fishing fleets and coastguard working in Southeast Asia more effectively, with crews able to re-supply and rest, said Carl Thayer, a South China Sea expert at Canberra’s Australian Defense Force Academy. Oil explorers would similarly benefit.
Reuters reported in July that Chinese authorities were encouraging fishermen to sail to the Spratlys, often providing fuel subsidies to help.
Vietnam had up until now the most holdings in the Spratlys, with 25 bases on shoals and reefs. Vietnam is also quietly building up its submarine fleet to counter China.
Roilo Golez, a former Philippine national security adviser, predicted China would complete its reclamation work by early next year and announce an ADIZ (Air Defense and Identification Zone) within three years.
SOURCES – IHS Janes, Reuters, NBC News