China's first runway in Spratlys under construction
James Hardy, London and Sean O'Connor, Indianapolis. Additional reporting by Michael Cohen, Manila
IHS Jane's Defence Weekly
15 April 2015Key Points
- Satellite imagery shows that China has begun building a runway on reclaimed parts of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands
- The imagery, provided by Airbus Defence and Space, also shows China building islands on Subi Reef that if linked up would provide enough land for another airstrip
China has begun to build its first airstrip in the Spratly Islands, according to IHS Jane’s analysis of Airbus Defence and Space satellite imagery taken in March.
The 23 March images show a paved section of runway 503 m by 53 m on the northeastern side of Fiery Cross Reef, which China began to turn into an island in late 2014. Paving and ground preparation of other sections of the runway has also begun further along the island. In addition, workers have paved about 400 m by 20 m of apron.
Other imagery taken in March also shows China could be building a second airstrip-capable island on Subi Reef.
China’s island building at Fiery Cross Reef has created a landmass that is capable of housing a runway about 3,000 m long. This would be well within the parameters of existing People’s Liberation Army Air Force runways on mainland China, which vary in length from about 2,700 m to 4,000 m at most.
The runway at Woody Island in the Paracel Islands was about 2,300 m before upgrade work started there in 2014; satellite imagery suggests China is also expanding that to be about 3,000 m long.
The 23 March imagery of Fiery Cross Reef also shows further dredging on the new island’s southwestern side, close to the extant platform that China originally built on the reef. The imagery also shows floating cranes consolidating the integrity of new island’s harbour by placing concrete blocks on the interior walls; an exterior sea wall has also been extended, presumably to provide better protection for ships in port.
Airbus imagery taken of Subi Reef – also in the Spratlys – on 6 February and 5 March shows land reclamation on this site too. The 6 February image shows three islands being created. By 5 March, at least nine dredgers are creating larger landmasses on the reef that if joined together could create enough land for another 3,000 m-long airstrip.
While Fiery Cross Reef is to the west of the Spratly Islands archipelago, Subi Reef is on the north side of the island group and is only 25 km from Thitu/Pagasa island, which is occupied by the Philippines and has a civilian population.
latest imagery confirms that China is making quick progress in its
island building programme' the speed at which it has begun airstrip
construction is impressive given that there in August 2014 Fiery Cross
Reef was still a reef.
The Philippines has expanded its attempts
to raise international awareness of China's reclamation projects, with
the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) seeking a review from the United
Nations' environmental agencies and international non-government
organisations with a view to starting a new campaign to "Save the
Reefs". It earlier said the reclamation has destroyed about 300 acres of
coral reef systems.
On 14 April a Philippine DFA spokeperson
responded to a 9 April statement by China that had said the new islands
would provide "comprehensive services to meet civilian demands and
satisfy the need of necessary military defence."
statements by China only serve to raise the spectre of increasing
militarisation and threaten peace and stability in the region," the
Philippine DFA spokesperson said. "We should not allow China to distract
us from the real issues in the South China Sea, which are China's
illegitimate 'nine-dash line' claim, and China's unilateral and
aggressive behaviour in asserting that claim, as exemplified by its
massive and unrestrained reclamation."
Meanwhile, Philippine DFA
Secretary Albert del Rosario said new US Defense Secretary Ashton
Carter had promised investments in "high-end equipment specifically to
counter China's massive reclamation activities" that would be forward
deployed to the Philippines. Del Rosario refused to provide more details
but said he was seeking "formal clarification" from Washington of its
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows Subi Reef prior to the beginning of land reclamation operations. (? CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS)
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows China initiating land reclamation operations at Subi Reef in the South China Sea. Should the northern terrain be linked with the southern terrain during the process, enough space will exist for a runway up to 3,000 m long. (? CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS)
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows land reclamation at Subi Reef. China appears to be following historical methodology for land reclamation operations, with reclaimed terrain used to envelop an existing installation. This allows China to characterize its activity as expansion rather than new construction. (? CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS)
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows changes to Fiery Cross Reef observed between February and March 2015. Noteworthy is the beginning of airfield installation in March, and the relocation of some dredging activity out of the harbour. (? CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS)
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows runway construction underway at Fiery Cross Reef. (? CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS)
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows retaining wall installation underway within the harbour at Fiery Cross Reef. The retaining wall prevents the loss of reclaimed land, and is produced by placing concrete blocks brought in by ship. (? CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS) The contested Spratly Islands and their occupying countries. (IHS)