China might station its J-11 fighter jets in the disputed South China Sea once work on several runways on reclaimed land there is complete, analysts say. The deployment in the Spratly Islands, which China calls the Nanshas, would dramatically extend the reach of the nation's military beyond its southernmost base at Sanya on Hainan Island. However, experts say the jet would be limited to a defensive role because it is an older model outclassed by aircraft in the US Air Force. The J-11 has lost much of its competitive edge over the quarter-century since China began to build on the Soviet-designed Su-27. But it is a key asset of the air force, with an estimated several hundred in operation. "As a long-range strike aircraft, the J-11 should be sent to the South China Sea," Huang Zhao, an 80-year-old former air force pilot, said. "Every time when the J-11 flies over the sky, it also reminds me of that historic decision made 25 years ago to push for its creation, and rapidly develop the PLA Air Force." The Central Military Commission passed a proposal on June 30, 1990 to buy 24 of the Su-27s, the most advanced aircraft made by the Soviet Union at the time. The deal came after three events led Beijing to rethink its military's air strength, said Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong. The first was the US embargo against arms sales to China, imposed in the aftermath of the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. In the Middle East, Beijing saw how quickly the US achieved victory in the first Gulf war, largely on the back of its air superiority. Washington also agreed to sell Taiwan 150 of its latest generation F-15 aircraft, which was a leap ahead in technology over the PLA's J-8 II, already a decade old by then. China's arrangement for the Su-27s was unusual. The Soviet Union was suffering through a period of scarcity and Moscow took 70 per cent of the payment in light industrial goods and food. The agreement also included a US$2.5 billion licence for the production line so China could make variations of the jet. The deal appeared threatened when the Soviet Union collapsed 18 months later but the new president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, promised to honour the terms. Delivery of the aircraft and production line began in February 1991 and concluded in September 2009. The Su-27 acquisition helped the PLA Air Force narrow the gap with Taiwan's air force, and also resurrected Moscow's nearly bankrupt defence industry, Wong said. With the Su-27 and its brethren J-11 and modified J-11B - made by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation - the PLA Air Force has grown more assertive in flexing its muscle. The most recent incident that has been publicly acknowledged came in August. A J-11 fighter jet came within 10 metres of a US P-8A Poseidon sub-hunter about 220km east of Hainan. The J-11 flew past the P-8's nose and performed a barrel roll at close range. Beijing last week said its reclamation work being carried out on seven islets in the South China Sea would conclude soon. The new structures include two airstrips, at least one of which appears suitable for military use. Located on Fiery Cross Reef, the runway extends for 3km - long enough for the J-11 to land. China insists most of the new facilities are intended for civilian use and it will allow other nations in the region, including rival claimants, to use them. But the offer has failed to quell suspicions that China's endgame is new military bases in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The J-11s have a range of 1,500km, which can be extended with additional fuel tanks. Setting up operations on the islands would move the reach of the air force about 1,000km further south, and in conjunction with the Liaoning aircraft carrier, take China towards its stated goal of moving away from offshore defence to open-sea protection. Sun Yat-sen University military expert David Tsui said the J-11 was only effective enough to defend China's seven islands, but not sophisticated enough to be used in an attack. "China realised its key rival is the US, which will definitely get involved in territorial disputes immediately if the PLA begins using coercive measures or force to solve the problem," Tsui said. "China's first carrier-based jet, the J-15, may be advanced enough to challenge the US' F-18, but the PLA Air Force's main fighter jets, the J-11 and its variants, cannot compete with the US' F-22 and F-35."