By Gregory Poling
Over the last year, the world has watched as China has gone from one airfield in the South China Sea to potentially four. Facilities on Woody Island in the Paracels already gave China the ability to monitor the northern South China Sea. Earlier this year, the addition of an airfield on Fiery Cross Reef provided a more southerly runway capable of handling most if not all Chinese military aircraft. And in June, satellite photos indicated that China was preparing to lay down another runway at Subi Reef. New photos taken on September 3 show grading work at Subi, providing further evidence that runway construction there is planned. Meanwhile work at the Fiery Cross airfield is well advanced, with China recently laying down paint.
Satellite photos taken on September 8 contain an unanticipated development, indicating that China may be preparing to construct another airstrip at Mischief Reef. These images show that a retaining wall has been built along the northwest side of the reef, creating a roughly 3,000-meter rectangular area. This is the only part of the feature where China has chosen to use a retaining wall to straighten what would otherwise be an irregular landmass; on the rest of Mischief its reclamation work has followed the natural geography of the underlying reef. A cement plant has been set up in that area, indicating that significant construction is planned. This all echoes preparatory work seen earlier at Fiery Cross and Subi, suggesting another runway could be in the works.
An airstrip at Mischief would be of particular concern to the Philippines. The potential runway would be just 21 nautical miles from the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era tank landing ship deliberately grounded by the Philippines in 1999 that is home to a contingent of Philippine marines at Second Thomas Shoal. China has maintained a constant coast guard presence around Second Thomas since 2013 and attempted to prevent resupply of the Sierra Madre in March 2014. The potential airfield at Mischief Reef would also be just 60 nautical miles from Reed Bank, where the Philippines hopes to drill for natural case deposits over China’s objections.
Fiery Cross sits in the western half of the Spratlys and the airstrip there most directly presents a hurdle to operations by Vietnam, which occupies most of that part of the chain. Subi is at the northern end of the Spratlys, just 15 nautical miles from the Philippine airstrip at Thitu Island and less than 40 from Taiwan’s only holding on Itu Aba. A third airstrip on Mischief Reef, 100 nautical miles southeast of Subi, would complete the triangle, significantly boosting China’s air patrol and interdiction capabilities over the contested waters and features of the Spratlys, heightening tensions, and presenting greater operational headaches for all the claimants as well as outside players like the United States.
By Bonnie Glaser
China is still dredging in the South China Sea. Satellite imagery of Subi Reef taken in early September shows dredgers pumping sediment onto areas bordered by recently built sea walls and widening the channel for ships to enter the waters enclosed by the reef. On Mischief Reef, a dredger is also at work expanding the channel to enable easier access for ships, possibly for future use as a naval base.
This activity comes in the wake of assertions by China that its land reclamation has ended in the Spratly Island chain. On August 5, during the ASEAN Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told reporters, “China has already stopped. You look, who is building? Take a plane and look for yourself.” He did not pledge that China would refrain from construction and militarization on the newly-created islands, however.
Wang Yi reiterated that China’s construction on the islands is mainly “to improve the working and living conditions of personnel there” and for “public good purposes.” To date, however, China’s activity appears focused on construction for military uses. Recently built structures on Fiery Cross Reef include a completed and freshly painted 3,000-meter runway, helipads, a radar dome, a surveillance tower, and possible satellite communication facilities.
In its natural state, prior to being transformed into an artificial island, two small rocks at Fiery Cross Reef were above water at high tide and therefore, under the law of the sea, that land feature may qualify for a 12-nautical mile territorial sea. Subi and Mischief reefs were submerged under water and therefore they do not generate legal maritime zones and no state can claim sovereignty over them. At most they are allowed a 500-meter vessel traffic management zone to ensure navigational safety. Apparent Chinese preparations for building lengthy airstrips on Subi and Mischief raise questions about whether China will pose challenges to freedom of navigation in the air and sea surrounding those land features in the future.
The persistence of dredging along with construction and militarization on China’s artificial islands underscore Beijing’s unwillingness to exercise self-restraint and look for diplomatic paths to reduce tensions with its neighbors, the United States, and other nations with an interest in the preservation of peace and stability in the South China Sea. U.S. calls for all claimants in the South China Sea to halt land reclamation, construction, and militarization have been rejected by China, which views the status quo as unfavorable to its interests.
On the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, Beijing appears to be sending a message to President Barack Obama that China is determined to advance its interests in the South China Sea even if doing so results in heightened tensions with the United States.
By Christopher Johnson
China’s recent construction activity at Subi and Mischief reefs, while undermining anything other than the narrowest possible interpretation of China’s recent claims that it was ceasing such activities, should come as no surprise when viewed against the backdrop of China’s emerging maritime strategy under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. The Xi administration’s increased emphasis on maritime matters was hinted at as early as the 18th Party Congress that brought Xi to power. Former president Hu Jintao, in his valedictory address to the congress, stated that “we should . . . resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.” Though a simple statement, its significance lay in the fact that no Chinese leader had uttered such an intention in nearly 500 years.
At its core, Xi’s approach reflects China’s broader interest in developing more maritime strategic depth on its periphery as its interests expand well beyond its shores. In effect, China sees its activities in the South China Sea as contributing to its efforts to signal its regional neighbors, and the United States, that its forces intend to operate at times of their choosing out to the “second island chain” and beyond into the Western Pacific. In this context, China’s latest construction efforts can be seen as a fundamental building block toward establishing effective control over this area that is foundational to achieving its broader ambitions.
The Chinese military in May issued its latest Defense White Paper, which states that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been handed a new “strategic task,” to “safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests,” especially in the maritime domain. As a consequence, the PLA Navy “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection.” Under these auspices, the PLA in the near future will be a force operating well beyond the “first island chain” and into the Indian Ocean. China’s long-term ambition to have multiple aircraft carrier strike groups is designed to facilitate the overawing of lesser powers, enhance China’s regional prestige, and provide the demonstration effect of near-constant presence. For rival claimants in the South China Sea, this is a game changer. China’s clear military capacity will shape how the region behaves toward it without a need for menacing Chinese behavior. The recent developments at Subi and Mischief reefs must be properly understood in the context of this overall Chinese maritime game plan.
By Michael Green and Zack Cooper
China’s latest construction activities suggest that Beijing may be attempting to move from a local air and sea denial capability to an air and sea control posture in the South China Sea.Most public commentary to date has focused on the complications these airstrips could pose to peacetime interactions, particularly for other South China Sea claimants. With one airfield in the Paracels and another in the Spratlys, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could already conduct significant peacetime patrol operations, providing a significant edge over its maritime neighbors. The investment of significant additional resources to build two new airfields in the same area of the South China Sea points to a strategy of dispersal and wartime utilization in contingency scenarios.
There is no doubt that the United States and its allies and partners could neutralize these bases in wartime. However, doing so would require a concerted effort from U.S. forces, many of which would already be in high demand if a conflict were to occur. Moreover, the PLA could make approaching these airfields highly risky. In the air, PLA integrated air defenses would pose a threat to friendly aircraft, complicating the existing challenge of confronting PLA Air Force fighters. On the seas, long-range sensors and anti-ship cruise missiles would amplify the risk to surface naval forces throughout the region. Undersea, the PLA Navy could use diesel submarines and acoustic arrays to raise the hazard to U.S. submarines. In addition, defensive Chinese systems might be capable of protecting against most U.S. cruise missiles, thereby forcing U.S. forces to risk closer approaches to these reclaimed features.
At this point, we can only say conclusively that the PLA has access to a 3,000-meter airfield at Fiery Cross Reef, appears to be preparing another runway at Subi Reef, and has reclaimed land that could support a similar facility at Mischief Reef. However, there are compelling indicators that the PLA is on the cusp of a more significant operational capability than originally envisioned by outside observers.