Recent satellite photographs show Beijing has built concrete aircraft hangars on reefs and features in the South China Sea (SCS), a Washington-based think tank said even as Japan warned China on Tuesday that ties were deteriorating over another maritime dispute.
The photographs indicating further militarisation of the already tense region emerged less than a month after an international tribunal ruled that China doesn’t have historical rights over the South China Sea, handing petitioner and Beijing’s much smaller neighbour, the Philippines, a boost in the ongoing tussle.
The imagery released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) showed hangars on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly Islands, known as Nansha in China, which claims most of the South China Sea. The islands and reefs are also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
The CSIS released the report with the headline “Build and They Will Come: China Prepares Spratlys for Military Aircraft”.
“Civilian planes landed on Subi and Mischief reefs for the first time on July 12, giving China three operational runways in the disputed Spratly Islands. Except for a brief visit by a military transport plane to Fiery Cross Reef earlier this year, there is no evidence that Beijing has deployed military aircraft to these outposts,” the report said.
But it added that the “rapid construction of reinforced hangars at all three features indicates that this is likely to change. Each of the three islets will soon have hangar space for 24 fighter jets plus 3-4 larger planes.”
Gregory Poling, director of CSIS's Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told The New York Times: “They are far thicker than you would build for any civilian purpose...They're reinforced to take a strike.”
CSIS added: “Other facilities including unidentified towers and hexagonal structures have also been built on the islets in recent months.”
Beijing had despatched fighter jets to fly over the South China Sea days after the tribunal in The Hague delivered the verdict on Philippines' petition. Beijing dismissed the verdict as "waste paper".
Amid these aggressive maritime actions by China, Japan warned that bilateral relations were deteriorating after dozens of Chinese vessels sailed into the disputed waters of the East China Sea over the weekend.
The two countries have a festering dispute over the ownership of Diaoyu Islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku. Increased Chinese activities in the region have angered Tokyo.
Japan’s foreign minister Fumio Kishida called in Chinese envoy Cheng Yonghua for the second time since Friday to protest against the incursion by the Chinese vessels. Kishida told Cheng that China was trying to change the status quo unilaterally, the Japanese foreign ministry said.
Kishida also said the environment surrounding bilateral ties was “deteriorating markedly”, the ministry said. The Chinese ships must leave the area as their presence had escalated tensions, he added.
The foreign minister said the repeated infiltration and unilateral attempt to change the status quo were unacceptable but Cheng later told reporters that the islands, which are controlled by Japan, were an “integral part of China’s territory”.
“I told him ... it is natural that Chinese ships conduct activity in the waters,” Cheng said.