From reef to biggest island in Spratlys, and China's not done yet at Fiery Cross
China has turned a strategically important reef into probably the biggest island in the Spratlys, Chinese scholars say, and the expansion is expected to continue.
Analysts said the continued expansion of Fiery Cross Reef, which China calls Yongshu Reef, is expected eventually to provide a vital outpost for Chinese military and civilian commercial activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea, many of which are closer to other claimants' coasts than to China's.
Claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam have protested against China's reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
Beijing has yet to openly admit its plans to artificially expand reefs in the sea into islands.
Last week, Taiwan's top intelligence official, Lee Hsiang-chou, said publicly that Beijing was conducting seven construction projects in the South China Sea, with five of them reportedly having been approved since Xi Jinping became president.
The expansion of Fiery Cross Reef proceeded faster than scheduled and it was likely to have outgrown Taiping Island - the biggest in the Spratlys chain - said Jin Canrong , a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
Controlled by Taiwan, Taiping, also known as Ita Aba, is the only one of the islands with fresh water. It has an area of about 0.5 sq km.
Wang Hanling, an expert on the South China Sea from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Fiery Cross Reef now nearly covered about 1 sq km and reclamation work would probably continue.
Both scholars said it was unclear how big the island would eventually become but it would probably house both military and civilian facilities.
Fiery Cross Reef is about 740 nautical miles south of the Chinese mainland, but closer to the Vietnamese coast.
It was vulnerable to ballistic missile attack from Vietnam should conflict break out, said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales and a member of the Australian Defence Force Academy.
He said there was no strong evidence yet to suggest China was planning to turn the artificial island into a naval base. But the islet could be turned into an outpost providing supplies and shelter for those engaged in commercial activities in the South China Sea, hence bolstering China's civilian presence in the area, Thayer said.
"It can make the life of people sitting on oil rigs that China deploys easier. Fishing vessels can also call in as they don't have to go all the way back to Hainan ," he said.
Analysts have said that by expanding islets, China has sought to bolster its presence in the South China Sea, which it claims almost in its entirety.
Over the weekend, Chinese website Guancha.cn published a report saying Fiery Cross Reef had been upgraded to an island. It cited unnamed sources and satellite images from DigitalGlobe taken between late September and October 16. It said it was now bigger than Taiping.
Jin from Renmin University said it was unlikely the reef would be renamed an island, since it "would involve international law and would be too complicated".