Updated August 9, 2017
Officials at the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Manila belatedly released a joint communique on August 6 after a protracted debate. The document almost didn’t happen because of disagreement over references to the South China Sea disputes, with Vietnam leading the push for stronger language despite objections from Cambodia and the host, the Philippines. In the end, consensus was reached on language that was considerably stronger than an earlier draft written by Manila. Among other changes, it noted “concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence…” and “emphasized the importance of non-militarisation.”
China objected to the strengthened statement and accused Vietnam of being the only country reclaiming land in the South China Sea. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi insisted, “At this time, if you ask who is carrying out reclamation, it is definitely not China – perhaps it is the country that brings up the issue that is doing it.” More surprising was Philippine foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano’s decision to back China’s position after the summit was over. Referring to the mention of land reclamation and militarization in the statement, Cayetano said “I didn’t want to include it. It’s not reflective of the present position. They (China) are not reclaiming land anymore.”
But this is false.
AMTI has carefully documented Vietnam’s expansion of its facilities in the Spratlys, including dredging and reclamation work at several islets (see here, here, and here). But China’s own reclamation work did not end in mid-2015 with the completion of its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Beijing continues to reclaim land farther north, in the Paracel Islands. The two most recent examples of this are at Tree Island and North Island in the Amphitrite Group. AMTI previously reported on work at these features (see below), which has continued in recent months.
In August 2015, two months after Wang Yi claims all Chinese reclamation ended, there was only a small amount of newly-created land on the western end of Tree Island. China has since dredged a new harbor and added about 25 acres of additional land to the island. In addition to the facilities that AMTI reported in February, China has recently completed a new helipad and installed renewable energy infrastructure in the form of wind turbines and two photovoltaic solar arrays on Tree Island.
China began reclamation to connect North Island with neighboring Middle Island in 2016, but the land bridge was washed out by Typhoon Sarika last October. Since then, China has undertaken additional reclamation on the southern end of North island and built a retaining wall around the seven acres of new land to prevent further erosion. It has constructed several new facilities, including what appears to be a large administrative building in a newly-made clearing on the island. China has left a gap in the retaining wall facing the remnants of the washed-out land bridge, suggesting it might not have abandoned plans to connect North and Middle Islands.
The South China Sea doesn’t only include the Spratly Islands, and for Vietnam, developments on the disputed Paracels are just as destabilizing. Vietnam and all the Southeast Asian claimants also have an interest in deterring future island-building, for instance at Scarborough Shoal. Both Beijing and Hanoi have undertaken dredging and reclamation work as recently as early 2017. Neither approaches the scale of what China did from late 2013 to mid-2015, but any such work is environmentally destructive, undermines regional stability, and warrants mention in diplomatic statements.
Originally posted February 8, 2017
While China’s expansion of its seven outposts in the Spratly Islands has dominated headlines since large-scale dredging began at the end of 2013, efforts to upgrade its capabilities in the Paracels farther north have received relatively little attention. But the island chain plays a key role in China’s goal of establishing surveillance and power projection capabilities throughout the South China Sea. To this end, Beijing has undertaken substantial upgrades of its military infrastructure in the Paracels.
China occupies 20 outposts in the Paracels. As seen in the map above, three of these now have protected harbors capable of hosting large numbers of naval and civilian vessels. Four others boast smaller harbors, with a fifth under construction at Drummond Island. Five of the islands contain helipads, with Duncan Island housing a full helicopter base. And the largest of the Paracels, Woody Island, sports an airstrip, hangars, and a deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries.
Woody Island, which has expanded to incorporate its small neighbor Rocky Island, is China’s main military base in the Paracels as well as the official administrative capital of the three island chains it claims in the South China Sea (the Xisha or Paracel Islands, Nansha or Spratly Islands, and Zhongsha, encompassing Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal). In the last few years, China has undertaken substantial land reclamation to expand Woody Island and construct new facilities. It has substantially upgraded the two sheltered harbors on the island, and upgraded its air base to include 16 small hangars for combat aircraft as well as four larger hangars. Most worrying, China in early 2016 deployed HQ-9 surface to air missiles to the island. Despite reports in July that the missile platforms had departed, they still appear to be deployed along the north shore of Woody. China also test-fired anti-ship cruise missile from the island in mid-2016, but it is unclear whether or not those platforms remain. Since 2013, Woody Island has been used as a blueprint for upgrades at China’s three largest bases in the Spratlys, on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs. As such, it is reasonable to assume that those bases could soon host capabilities similar to those on Woody Island, including surface-to-air missiles and cruise missiles.
Update: More recent imagery, from March 29, 2017, shows what appears to be a Shenyang J-11 jet fighter on the airstrip at Woody Island. This marks the first time since April 2016 that AMTI has seen fighters on the island. It is unclear whether the aircraft is the only one on the island, or if others are parked inside the hangars nearby.
Palm and Duncan Islands, which have been connected by a land bridge, constitute China’s second most advanced military base in the Paracels. The area between the two islands has been dredged and turned into a substantial harbor. In addition, the island sports a helicopter base including hangars and eight helipads. As others have surmised, this base could play an important role in Chinese anti-submarine warfare efforts.
Tree Island has seen substantial upgrades in the last year. China has dredged a new harbor off the southwest end of the islet, considerably expanding its land area in the process. New construction on this expanded area includes radomes and large buried structures similar to those previously built at Woody Island and Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs.
North and Middle Islands
China has reclaimed new land at the southern end of North Island and has begun to construct new facilities on it. The presence of a cement plant suggests construction will continue and the island might come to sport major military infrastructure like those elsewhere in the Paracels. China also built a land bridge to neighboring Middle Island, but this was washed out by Typhoon Sarika in October 2016. It is unclear whether China has abandoned the effort or will rebuild the bridge in an effort to turn the two islets into a single feature.
Triton Island is one of four of the Paracels that appear to have already contained small harbors prior to the current construction blitz. But its facilities have been expanded recently, including with a new helipad. The island is also unique for sporting a large Chinese flag and characters, both visible from satellite or air surveillance, declaring China’s sovereignty over the Paracels.
Like Triton, Pattle Island includes a small harbor and helipad, and has recently seen the construction of new facilities.
Lincoln Island boasts a small harbor, but no air infrastructure to date.
Money Island, like Triton and Pattle, houses a small enclosed harbor and helipad, along with a growing number of structures.
Drummond Island until recently hosted no military infrastructure to speak of. But China is in the process of dredging a new harbor for the island.
Antelope Reef, Observation Bank, and Quanfu and Yagong Islands
Not all of China’s outposts in the Paracels currently house significant infrastructure, and many contain no more than one or two buildings (including two with only lighthouses). Four in particular, at Antelope Reef, Observation Bank, Quanfu Island, and Yagong Island, are little more than sandbars. But the presence of small buildings and construction materials suggests China may be preparing to expand those features.