South China Sea on a Boil
Beijing Building Another Airstrip in the South China Sea

China is building a third runway on the disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, according to satellite photographs taken earlier this month. Reuters has more:

Photographs taken for Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank on Sept. 8 show construction on Mischief Reef, one of seven artificial islands China has created in the Spratly archipelago.

The images show a retaining wall around an area 3,000 meters (3,280 yards) long, matching similar work by China on two other reefs in the Spratlys, Subi and Fiery Cross, said Greg Poling, director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

Poling said the work “more likely than not indicates preparations for a runway” on the reef.

The Spratly islands lie off the coasts of Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. China constructed its first runway in the Spratlys back in April on a separate man-made reef called Fiery Cross and is building yet another on Subi. Beijing has insisted that these efforts are intended for both civilian and military use and will be open to international search-and-rescue efforts, but most regional analysts, and the U.S. government, agree that this is an attempt by China at power projection into a key maritime shipping lane.

The White House is gearing up to host Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first official state visit to the U.S. next week. Some had speculated that Beijing’s announcement this summer that it was “finished” with its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea was intended, among other things, to reduce tensions with the U.S. prior to the visit. Clearly, however, Beijing isn’t backing down. Key stories to watch in the weeks and months to come include not just Washington’s response, but the mood in Tokyo and Manila as well.

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