China has completed the construction of a military airstrip on one of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, according to Chinese state-run media outlets.
On Wednesday AFP reported, citing an article from Xinhua News Agency, that China had finished the construction of a “newly built” runway on Woody (Yongxing) Island, a PRC-administered Paracel Island that is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
AFP said the Xinhua article contained few details but did say the airstrip is 2,000 meters long and would be used by the People’s Liberation Army.
“With the completion and continued improvements to the runway on Yongxing, military aircraft can be based in the Paracels, and greatly improve Chinese defense capabilities” in the South China Sea, AFP quoted the Xinhua article as saying. It added that the article contained pictures of the airstrip.
Although the AFP article referred to the airstrip as a “newly built facility,” and said Xinhua had stated its length at 2,000 meters, there is already an airstrip located on Woody Island and recent satellite imagery has shown work being done to extend it from 2,400 meters to around 2,700-2,800 meters. It therefore seems likely that China has not built a completely new airstrip but rather finished extending the existing one.
Regardless of whether China has built a new airstrip on Woody Island or just extended the existing one, the move is consistent with its ongoing effort to build up military and other facilities on islands and reefs it administers throughout the South China Sea as a way to strengthen both its claims of sovereignty and the PLA’s ability to patrol the vast waters that China claims in the region.
Woody Island, which is the largest of the Paracel Islands, has been central to this effort. The island serves as the center of government of Sansha City, the prefecture-level city China created in June 2012 to strengthen its ability to administer the surrounding island chains, which are claimed in whole or part by Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
The following month China’s Central Military Commission announced it had approved a plan to establish a new military garrison in Sansha.
“The garrison command will be a division-level command under the PLA’s Hainan provincial sub-command, responsible for managing the city’s national defense mobilization, military reserves and carrying out military operations,” Xinhua reported of the Sansha military garrison at the time of its creation.
More recently, in July of this year, China announced it will “gradually establish a regular patrol system on Sansha city to jointly protect the country’s maritime interests.” To do this it said it would continue building up the necessary infrastructure on Woody Island, and ultimately base a 5,000-ton marine patrol ship there. In 2011 China finished construction on a new harbor on the western side of Woody Island.