Is Beijing readying its airstrips for a military build-up in the South China Sea?

Satellite images show transport plane on Subi Reef in contested Spratly Islands, just 12 nautical miles from Philippine island

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 6:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 10:37pm

A Chinese military aircraft was spotted on a disputed island in the South China Sea late last month, according to a US think tank that monitors activity in the region, and the move is unlikely to go unnoticed by Beijing’s neighbours, analysts said.

The presence of the Shaanxi Y-8 transport plane on a runway at Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, as seen in satellite images taken on April 28, confirms that China has now landed military aircraft on all three of its airstrips – located on separate reefs – in the contested archipelago, the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said.

Last month, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published photographs, said to have been taken in January, of two Chinese transport planes, believed to be Xian Y-7s, on Mischief Reef in the island group, while in April 2016, a Chinese naval patrol aircraft, most probably a Y-8, landed on Fiery Cross Reef to evacuate three people who had fallen ill there.

Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea, which includes the construction of artificial islands and related infrastructure, has been strongly criticised by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, all of which have competing territorial claims in the waterway.

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Subi Reef lies just 12 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Thitu Island, which is home to about 100 civilians and a small military garrison, and the appearance of a Chinese military aircraft so close to its territory is unlikely to go down well in Manila, according to Richard Javad Heydarian, a specialist in international relations based in the Philippine capital.

“This is a direct betrayal of China’s supposed pledge to the Philippines not to militarise land features it [the Philippines] claims,” he said.

The latest images were also likely to be picked up by domestic opponents of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been strongly criticised at home for his lack of response to China’s development of military facilities in the region.

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At a press conference last week, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry in Beijing appeared to confirm US media reports that China had deployed missile defence systems in the Spratly Islands, but said the “relevant deployment targets no one”.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that the military plane seen in the latest photographs appeared to be a “normal airlifter”.

He was referring to the fact that although the People’s Liberation Army classifies the Y-8 as a transport plane, capable of carrying more than 120 passengers, several of them have been retrofitted with intelligence gathering equipment.

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“Seeing military-grade airlifters in the disputed area is not unusual,” Koh said, adding that similar aircraft from the Philippine and Malaysian military had been spotted in the region.

“The only [notable] thing is that because of the scale of the airstrips on China’s artificial islands … they could support much larger airlift operations, [for example] during a large-scale military build-up.”

The strips are big enough to accommodate China’s Y-20 heavy airlifters, H-6 strategic bombers and fighter jets, he said.