New images suggest China militarizing disputed islands

By Reuters/Eric Beech   August 9, 2016 | 11:01 am GMT+7
New images suggest China militarizing disputed islands
Construction of hangars has transformed Subi Reef in the last four years, from 2012 (L) to 2016 (R). Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

Recent satellite photographs show China appears to have built reinforced aircraft hangars on the Spratly Islands.

Recent satellite photographs show China appears to have built reinforced aircraft hangars on its holdings in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea (Vietnam's East Sea), the New York Times reported on Monday.

There were no military aircraft seen at the time the photos were taken in late July but the hangars have room for any fighter jet in the Chinese air force, the Times said, citing an analysis of the photos by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank.

Latest photo of Subi Reef taken on April 17 2016. Possible runway construction is ongoing on the western rim of the reef.

Latest photo of Subi Reef taken on June 24 2016. Most of the hangars are being constructed at the southern end of the runway, with a few small hangars at the northern end. All the fighter-jet hangars appear nearly complete. Two medium hangars and two large hangars are being built behind those for fighters at the south end of the airstrip, and will presumably be connected to the runway by an additional taxiway. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

[Caption]

Subi Reef. September 3, 2015. Possible runway construction is ongoing on the western rim of the reef. At the southeastern entrance, a dredger widens the access channel to the inner reef. To the northeast a second dredger completes land reclamation along the rim. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

[Caption]

 Photo of Subi Reef taken on July 27 2012. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

The hangars were constructed on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs, part of the Spratly Islands. China claims most of the South China Sea (Vietnam's East Sea), through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

[Caption]

Latest photo of Mischief Reef taken on June 04 2016. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

[Caption]

Mischief Reef on September 8, 2015. A square area approximately 3,000 meters long has been cleared and flattened along the northern rim of the reef. Some believe an airstrip may be built in this straightaway in the near future. At the western access channel into the inner reef, an active dredger is visible. To the east, a second concrete plant has been set up on the rim of the reef. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

[Caption]

Mischief Reef on January 24 2012. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

"Construction of hangars at Mischief Reef is at an earlier stage," wrote CSIS. "Small hangars are being built along the length of the runway, while three medium hangars and one large hangar are being constructed along the apron at its northern end."

[Caption]

Construction of hangars at Mischief Reef. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

[Caption]

Construction of hangars at Mischief Reef. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

The images have emerged about a month after an international court in The Hague ruled against China's sweeping claims in the resource-rich region, a ruling emphatically rejected by Beijing.

[Caption]

Latest photo of Fiery Cross Reef taken on June 3 2016. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

[Caption]

Fiery Cross Reef. September 3, 2015. Runway construction nears completion as paint is applied to the concrete on the western side of the reef. New building construction has appeared on the east side of the reef. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

[Caption]

Fiery Cross Reef on July 29 2009. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

According to CSIS, construction of fighter-jet hangars appears complete at the southern end of the runway and is well-advanced along the middle of the airstrip. At the northern end, construction on a final set of hangars is still in the early stages. 

[Caption]

Two medium hangars and one large hangar on Fiery Cross Reef are being constructed toward the southern end of the runway. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

[Caption]

Two medium hangars and one large hangar Fiery Cross Reef are being constructed toward the southern end of the runway. Photo by Center for Strategic and International Studies

The United States has urged China and other claimants not to militarize their holdings in the South China Sea. China has repeatedly denied doing so, saying the facilities were for civilian and self-defense uses, and in turn criticized U.S. patrols and exercises for ramping up tensions in the region.

The hangars all show signs of structural strengthening, CSIS said.

"They are far thicker than you would build for any civilian purpose," Gregory Poling, director of CSIS's Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told the Times. "They're reinforced to take a strike." 

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