Beijing just upped the ante in the South China Sea. Freshly released satellite images from IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly of one of the most contentious of China’s island building projects, the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Island chain, show an aircraft runway in the advanced stages of construction, along with a port and several clusters of buildings.
The New York Times has more:
The runway, which is expected to be about 10,000 feet long — enough to accommodate fighter jets and surveillance aircraft — is a game changer in the competition between the United States and China in the South China Sea, said Peter Dutton, professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College in Rhode Island. […]In time, Mr. Dutton said, China is likely to install radar and missiles that could intimidate countries like the Philippines, an American ally, and Vietnam, which also have claims to the Spratlys, as they resupply modest military garrisons in the area.More broadly, he said, China’s ability to use Fiery Cross Reef as a landing strip for fighter and surveillance aircraft will vastly expand its zone of competition with the United States in the South China Sea.
The runway gives the lie to China’s recent claim that its broad land-reclamation efforts to build what a U.S. official recently described as a “Great Wall of Sand” are purely for maritime purposes—meant to provide shelter for ships in the event of typhoons. An airbase with a 10,000 foot runway is consistent with plans to eventually project force into the area.
Nobody will be overly surprised at this latest development in Beijing’s long game in the South China Sea—least of all readers who were with us back in November when this particular atoll appeared on China-watchers’ radars. However, the policy for carrying it out has changed shape. Over the past few months, Beijing has backed away from some of its more aggressive moves, like ramming and menacing the ships of rival claimants, and no recent action by Beijing has been as inflammatory as, for example, its placement of an oil rig in Vietnamese waters in May 2014.
If the policy evolves, the general strategy remains largely the same. China’s is still employing what some have called its “cabbage strategy” to get the South China Sea territory it feels it deserves. Like a cabbage which slowly sprouts small leaves one over the other, until eventually there sits the final product, China is trying to take small steps, one at a time, to slowly establish control over the region.
A brazen grab of everything China wants—the territory inside the”Nine-Dash Line” on it official maps, which comprises roughly 80 percent of the whole sea—would be big enough to spark real international resistance. But Beijing is betting that no small, individual step on the way to that goal will appear serious enough the provoke anything more than words and gestures from the international community. So China is pushing ahead with its effort to change the facts on the ground—or, rather of the ground.