China building aircraft hangars on disputed islands in South China Sea, says US think tank

Satellite images show construction work on three reefs in the Spratly chain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2016, 1:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2016, 11:26pm

China appears to be building reinforced aircraft hangars on reclaimed islands it controls in a disputed area of the South China Sea, according to a US think tank.

Satellite photographs taken in late July show the construction of hangars on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly chain of islands and some have already been completed, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Although no military aircraft have been spotted, each of the three small islands would soon have enough hangar space for 24 fighter jets, plus three to four larger planes, the think tank said.

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China has built up the three reefs to become the largest man-made land masses in the Spratlys, each with a runway more than 3,000 metres long.

The hangars, in three different sizes, could accommodate any plane used by China’s air force, the think tank said.

These include the J-11 and Su-30 fighters, H-6 bombers, the H-6U refuelling tanker and the air force’s largest aircrafts –the Y-20 and Il-76 transport planes.

All the hangars showed signs of structural strengthening, the think tank said.

China has tested the airstrips with civilian aircraft, but has not deployed military planes except for one transport aircraft that briefly landed at Fiery Cross Reef in April to pick up three sick workers.

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“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,” the report said.

Apart from meeting necessary military defence needs, [the facilities] will serve more for various civilian purposes
China’s Ministry of Defence

“But the rapid construction of reinforced hangars at all three features indicates that this is likely to change.”

Other facilities have also been built on the reefs in recent months, according to the think tank.

A statement from China’s Ministry of Defence said construction work on the reefs was “multi-purposed and comprehensive”.

“Apart from meeting necessary military defence needs, [the facilities] will serve more for various civilian purposes,” the statement said.

Beijing-based naval researcher Li Jie said the hangars were necessary for long-term aircraft deployment and operation, as well as ground logistics and maintenance. “Building supporting facilities should be part of the original plan,” he said.

The images were taken less than two weeks after an international tribunal in The Hague ruled China’s nine-dash line, which demarcates Beijing claims to most of the South China Sea, has no legal basis.

The tribunal also declared that China’s construction work on Mischief Reef violated the Philippines’ sovereignty rights.

Beijing refused to take part in the hearings, saying the tribunal had no legal jurisdiction.

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China has been sending air force planes to conduct “normalised” patrols over the disputed islands in recent weeks.

Other countries with claims in the South China Sea include Vietnam and Malaysia.