China 'sends warning' with release of photographs of disputed South China Sea island
Photographs of Yongxing Island show lengthy runway that could be used by the military
China has released the first high-resolution photographs of a newly built runway on a disputed island in the South China Sea.
An analyst said the aim of publishing the photographs of the airstrip at Yongxing Island, or Woody Island, was to send a warning to Vietnam and the United States that China was strengthening its military presence in the area.
Beijing had also been angered by the United States announcement earlier this month that it was partially lifting its 40-year-old arms embargo on Vietnam, analysts said.
Yongxing, Sansha city's main island, is built on one of the Paracel Islands that are also claimed by Hanoi.
The photographs were published on the websites of Xinhua and other major Chinese news portals, including one showing large signs saying the airstrip had been built by military and civilian contractors.
Yongxing Island is 1.8km wide, but the airstrip is more than 2,000 metres long, suggesting to analysts that it could also be used by the military.
"The newly built runway will become China's unsinkable aircraft carrier because it will provide an ideal take-off and landing base for the People's Liberation Army naval air force," said Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong .
"The latest development at Yongxing Island is aimed at warning Washington that Beijing is well prepared in case the US joins with Vietnam to deal with Beijing when any possible military conflict over the territory takes place in the future," he said.
The US State Department said the easing of the arms embargo on former adversary Vietnam would only apply to maritime surveillance and security equipment, but military observers in China said the aim was to help strengthen Hanoi's defences in the South China Sea.
Tensions over the disputed territory sparked anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam in May after China deployed an oil rig off the Paracel Islands.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie , a retired PLA officer, said the runway would also pave the way for China to set up an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea.
A similar move in the East China Sea, which requires aircraft to notify China of their flight plans through the air space, sparked anger among China's neighbours last year.
"The new runway is now the biggest airport in the southernmost part of China," said Li.
"It will enhance Chinese fighter jets' combat capability, reconnaissance flights and even counter-reconnaissance skills.
"Sansha airport is also designed to be a supply depot for Chinese naval fleets with overseas peacekeeping missions. The runway will also help newly developed tourism in the Paracels."
Yongxing is 300km southeast of Hainan and has a permanent civilian population of about 1,500. It also houses army divisions comprising at least 6,000 troops after it was upgraded to a prefectural-level city two years ago.