China’s Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) in early January announced the expansion of its heavily-trafficked flight route M503. Authorities announced that the route, which previously accommodated only southbound flights over the Taiwan Strait, would be expanded into a north- and south-bound route and accompanied by the establishment of three extension routes servicing the cities of Xiamen, Fuzhou, and Dongshan. Authorities in Taipei quickly condemned the announcement as a unilateral and destabilizing violation of a previous cross-strait agreement, and demanded an immediate halt to air traffic using the route.
On February 5, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published a series of aerial photos of China’s seven outposts in the Spratly Islands. The photos, most of which were taken in late 2017 by an unspecified patrol aircraft from an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), do not reveal any new capabilities on the artificial islands, but they do offer an important new perspective. Comparing the aerial photos with AMTI’s most recently-available satellite imagery offers the best of both worlds, placing the former in context and lending the latter extra weight.
International attention has shifted away from the slow-moving crisis in the South China Sea over the course of 2017, but the situation on the water has not remained static. While pursuing diplomatic outreach toward its Southeast Asian neighbors, Beijing continued substantial construction activities on its dual-use outposts in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Data collected by AMTI lends credence to the idea that East China Sea fishing vessels have been much less provocative in their operations around the Senkaku Islands—so much so that it might indicate a purposeful effort by the government in China to constrain its fishing fleet and avoid escalating tensions.
Reports suggest that Hanoi recently halted oil and gas drilling in Block 136-03 on Vanguard Bank in response to a Chinese threat of force against Vietnamese outposts in the area. That claim is impossible to verify, but the story highlights the vulnerability of Vietnam’s many smaller installations in and around the Spratly Islands. AMTI has […]
Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels maintain a near-constant presence at Luconia Shoals off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak State. That uncomfortable fact does not garner much attention, either in the Malaysian or international press, but it speaks to Beijing’s determination to establish administrative control throughout the nine-dash line.
China appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems (CIWS), at each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands. AMTI began tracking the construction of identical, hexagon-shaped structures at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs in June and July. It now seems that these […]
Vietnam is responding to China’s construction of military facilities in the Spratly Islands by modestly expanding its own capabilities in the disputed chain. New imagery shows that Hanoi is significantly upgrading its sole runway in the South China Sea—at Spratly Island—and constructing new hangars at that feature. This is a familiar pattern for Hanoi. Even amid reduced diplomatic tensions, Vietnam continues to modernize its military and seek closer security ties with Japan, the United States, and India in preparation for future Chinese assertiveness in disputed waters. Reuters recently reported that Vietnam had deployed surface to air missile platforms to the Spratlys. Hanoi has not confirmed those reports, but such countermeasures should not be surprising in light of the significant air power that China will soon project over the Spratlys.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s recent trip to Beijing yielded a number of agreements, including a vaguely-worded commitment to peacefully resolve the South China Sea disputes. But there was no public breakthrough on one closely-watched topic: the ability of Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal. An international tribunal ruled on July 12 that China’s closure of the shoal to Philippine fishing was illegal. But in the lead-up to Duterte’s visit, Filipino fishermen complained that it was becoming more, not less, difficult for them to approach Scarborough. Recent satellite imagery supports this conclusion.
On July 12, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued its long-awaited ruling on Manila’s case against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. How many countries recognize the decision as legally binding on both parties and call for it to be respected will determine its ultimate value, as international […]
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. […]
China has sought to deflect criticism of its island building in the South China Sea by accusing other claimants, especially Vietnam, of doing the same. AMTI has examined each of the islets and reefs Vietnam occupies in the Spratly Islands and found evidence of reclamation at 10 of them. The images below suggest Vietnam has […]
Mounting tensions over the disputed Senkaku Islands have been a constant in Sino-Japanese relations since Tokyo purchased three of the five islands in 2012. For the last four years, Chinese coast guard vessels have regularly patrolled in the vicinity of the East China Sea islands and have often entered within the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea around […]
On January 23, AMTI Director Gregory Poling and Ambassador José Abeto Zaide, now with the Manila Bulletin, became the first foreigners in 15 years to visit Itu Aba (Taiping Dao in Chinese)—the only feature in the Spratly Islands occupied by Taiwan. They accompanied a delegation of Taiwanese experts and officials, including the ministers of foreign […]
China’s airstrip construction at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi reefs, and more recently developments in the Paracel Islands, have dominated the South China Sea discussion. But capabilities being developed at its smaller Spratly Island outposts—Gaven, Hughes, Johnson South, and especially Cuarteron reefs—will prove equally important to Beijing’s long-term strategy. This month’s deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air […]
Earlier this month Chinese media reported that Typhoon Melor, which devastated parts of the Philippines from December 12 to 17, also washed away Vietnamese reclamation work underway at Cornwallis South Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. Those reports were correct, but lacked important context. The attention drawn by the typhoon highlights the significant differences between […]
Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025 The Center for Strategic and International Studies last month completed an independent review of the defense portion of the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia Pacific. This review, which includes an evaluation of the rebalance’s implementation and resourcing as well as recommendations for its improvement, was mandated by the U.S. Congress under […]
In early September 2015, AMTI released images showing that China had effectively completed construction of its first Spratly Islands airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, was continuing work on its second at Subi Reef, and was preparing to begin work on a third at Mischief Reef. Four months later, China has not only landed three civilian […]
A Case of Rocks Or Islands? Examining the South China Sea Arbitration The Philippines argued the merits of its case against China’s claims in the South China Sea before an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague from November 24 to 30. As it has since the case was filed in […]
One Year of AMTI The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative is celebrating its first year. From ongoing land reclamation in the Spratly Islands to rising tensions between China and the United States and an ongoing standoff between Beijing and Tokyo in the East China Sea, the last 12 months only reinforced the need for greater transparency […]
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Lassen passed through the Spratly Islands on October 26 in the first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the area since 2012. The operation included sailing within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, a feature that was previously submerged at high-tide and on which China constructed an artificial island over […]
The Evolution of Asia’s Contested Waters Asia’s maritime disputes extend well beyond just the East and South China Sea. From the Indian Ocean to the Sea of Okhotsk, the region is home to stubbornly persistent disputes over waters, seabed, and the resources they hold. Progress has been frustratingly slow, but the landscape of Asia’s contested […]