Vietnam’s recent dredging efforts have garnered attention from both AMTI and the international press. But other occupants in the South China Sea have also continued to modestly upgrade their facilities in recent years. As part of a comprehensive update to our Island Tracker, AMTI has surveyed occupied features across the Spratly and Paracel Islands and discovered that China, the Philippines, and Taiwan have all engaged in construction activities, with many occurring as recently as this past spring.
Chinese harbor expansions, construction, and radomes
In the Paracel Islands, Lincoln, Money, and Pattle islands have all seen their harbors expanded in the last two years. Lincoln’s was expanded from 175 to 200 meters wide in March 2021, Money’s grew from 150 to 190 meters in March 2022, and Pattle’s from 190 to 250 meters a month later.
Expanded harbors at Lincoln Island, Money Island, Pattle Island
This spring, several structures were completed and minor construction undertaken at Johnson Reef in the Spratlys, and Tree Island and Money Islands in the Paracels.
Spring 2022 construction at Johnson Reef, Tree Island, and Money Island
In early 2021, solar panels were installed on top of many buildings across Woody Island, the heart of China’s military and civilian administration in the South China Sea.
Solar panel covered buildings on Woody Island, June 16, 2022.
And at Mischief Reef, several new radomes were installed since AMTI last surveyed the feature—two in late 2020, and one in early 2022.
Radomes constructed in late 2020 (left) and early 2022 (right) at Mischief Reef
Mystery Structure Appear Across China’s Outposts
From late 2019 through 2021, large blue-roofed structures—likely temporary given the speed at which they have been erected and in some cases moved from one location to another–were installed at every Chinese-occupied feature in the Spratly Islands. They seem to be standardized, with most measuring 50 meters long and either 15 or 25 meters wide. The first went up at Fiery Cross Reef in November 2019, followed by Subi Reef in April 2020, Mischief Reef in May, Gaven and Hughes Reef in August, Johnson Reef in September, and Cuarteron Reef by January of 2021.
Blue-roofed structures at Cuarteron, Fiery Cross, Gaven, Hughes, and Johnson Reef
The blue structures then made appearances in the Paracel Islands, appearing on Woody Island in April of 2021, Duncan Island in June, and Pattle Island in August. The structure at Woody Island was taken down in January of this year.
Blue-roofed structures at Woody Island, Duncan Island, and Pattle Island
Some of the structures have remained in place since their installation, while others have been taken down, or moved to new locations. Most recently, the structure at Fiery Cross Reef was moved from its southern tip to a more central location in April 2022. Subi Reef’s structures have occupied four different locations over the past two years, with two, at the southern and northern ends of the island, simultaneously between April and October 2021.
Blue-roofed structures at Subi Reef
The covered areas appear in most cases to have gone up quickly with minimal preparatory work, many of them were installed over basketball courts, portions of runways, or other pre-cleared areas. In one case at Subi, a Red Cross symbol was painted on the pavement near the structure.
Substantial Progress on Philippine Runway at Thitu, Minor Construction Across Spratlys
The most significant activity undertaken by the Philippines at its outposts in the Spratlys has been the renovation of the runway at its largest occupied feature, Thitu Island. Begun in December 2018, the project has made major strides in recent months, with the lower half of the runway being freshly paved this April.
Thitu Island, April 4, 2022
Elsewhere on Thitu, many buildings sustained significant damage during Typhoon Rai in December of 2021, including a newly constructed coast guard station completed only a month earlier. Imagery from April suggests that repairs to many of the damaged buildings have yet to be completed.
Damaged buildings on Thitu Island in December 2021 (left) and April 2022 (right)
Minor improvements have been made to several of the Philippines’ other occupied features. Its smallest outposts, on Commodore Reef and Loaita Cay, received identical new structures one year apart, with Commodore’s being installed in May 2020 and Loita Cay’s in May 2021.
Identical structures installed at Commodore Reef (left) and Loatia Cay (right).
Northeast Cay and West York Island also received nearly identical sets of three buildings each in the summer of 2021. The buildings at Northeast Cay were damaged in December by Typhoon Rai and have not yet been repaired.
Buildings constructed in summer of 2021 at Northeast Cay (left) and West York Island (right)
A new structure was also built on Loaita Island in April 2021:
Buildings constructed April 2021 at Loaita Island
And at Nanshan Island, land was cleared in March 2022 for a helipad in a location where a dirt helipad used to exist but had been overgrown in recent years.
March 2022 clearing for a helipad at Nanshan Island
Taiwan Shores Up Itu Aba
Last but not least, Taiwan engaged in minor land reclamation this spring on the western end of its only occupied feature in the Spratlys, Itu Aba. Whether this is for new construction or repair of the existing structures built on reclaimed land at that end of the island in 2015 is unclear.
Itu Aba, before (left) and after (right) the recent dredging