(Click here to zoom in) Two satellite image, from February 6 and March 23, showing China's rapid progress in building an airstrip on the disputed Spratly Islands. Photo: CNES 2015, Distributed by IHS Jane's Defence Weekly

Airstrip on Spratly Islands is for 'supply and maintenance only': Chinese ambassador

Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, said on Thursday that China was building its first airstrip on the Spratly Islands only to provide supply and maintenance for passing ships.

Angela Meng

The comments, made in Washington during a speech organised by the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, were made following the release of images provided by Airbus Defence and Space that showed China building a runway on reclaimed parts of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.

Cui told the International Conference on China-US Cooperation in Global Security Affairs that the construction aimed to improve the "functionality" of the reefs and provide services for China and its neighbours.

He said that such services would include providing shelter, aiding navigation, search and rescue, marine meteorological forecasting and fishery services.

Cui said that if the reef facilities had no defence capabilities, they would not be able to provide these services.

China has been turning Fiery Cross Reef, which it contests with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei, into an island since late 2014.

The satellite images, dated March 23, were analysed by IHS Jane's, a defence, risk, and security information service.

IHS Jane's said that China had constructed a landmass that was capable of housing a 3,000-metre long runway. It said that People's Liberation Army Air Force runways on the mainland varied from about 2,700 metres to 4,000 metres.

Other images showed that China was also building islands on Subi Reef that, if linked up, would provide enough space for another airstrip.

The report came a day after the head of US Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said China was "showing no slowdown in the pace of its military modernisation, particularly in the navy".

Locklear said that China had been "doing this in combination with what we have seen to be a fairly massive land reclamation in the Spratly Islands and upgrades to facilities in the Paracel Islands".

He said that these projects would eventually give China the ability to deploy radar and missile systems on outposts in the South China Sea.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Reef airstrip for 'supply and maintenance only'