How Close Is China to Another South China Sea Airstrip?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

How Close Is China to Another South China Sea Airstrip?

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On January 8, the Philippine news outlet Rappler quoted an informed defense source as saying that China is likely to finish constructing its second airstrip in the South China Sea by the end of 2015. Separately, the chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, General Gregorio Catapang Jr., also revealed that Beijing was about halfway done with its land reclamation activities on Fiery Cross Reef where the anticipated airstrip is likely to be built.

Satellite images released in November 2014 already indicated that Chinese dredgers had been reclaiming land on Fiery Cross Reef since August to create a land mass large enough for a 3 km long airstrip, which would be its second in the South China Sea after its airstrip in Woody Island in the Paracel Islands (Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have their own airstrips). But these latest reports suggest that China is quite far along in its land reclamation and airstrip construction. Those reclamation activities, along with having two airstrips — one in the Paracels and one in the Spratlys — could significantly boost Beijing’s position in the South China Sea with implications for other claimants and interested parties.

As I have stressed previously, it is important that we view such Chinese activities in the South China Sea not as isolated events, but rather as part of a broader strategy of “incremental assertiveness” to change the facts on the water in Beijing’s favor where possible to advance its claims. In this case, as with China’s several other ongoing land reclamation projects, including Cuateron Reef, Gaven Reef, and Johnson North Reef, Beijing’s efforts to increase the size of individual features like it is doing in Fiery Cross Reef — in its view — could help strengthen the legal justification for its extensive territorial claims.

That could in turn potentially have an effect on legal efforts by other South China Sea claimants, like the Philippines’ ongoing case against China at an arbitral tribunal at The Hague (which Vietnam also is now participating in) which could be decided sometime in late 2015 or 2016. While Manila has decided to stop all development work in the South China Sea because of the impact it might have on the ruling, Beijing seems to see no problem letting its activities continue because it perceives it will only change the status quo in its favor while the verdict is being determined.

Beyond the positional advantages that land reclamation would confer, having an airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef would be a significant addition to China’s power projection capabilities. Simply put, by having an airstrip in the Spratlys, Beijing’s aircraft can reach the far southern parts of the South China Sea easily, quickly and frequently when they otherwise might not have been able to due to range or refueling issues. That in turn would enable China to carry out more air patrols over its claimed territory and provide greater cover for its ships around the area. Given the patterns of Chinese behavior over the past few years, which show increasing incursions into the southern parts of the South China Sea affecting Malaysia and Indonesia, these countries should be worried about what this might mean for them once this becomes a reality.

As some have pointed out, having another airstrip may also be a step towards China’s plans of potentially creating an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea sometime in the future, similar to the one it announced in the East China Sea in November 2013. Since China declared that ADIZ, many have been wondering when exactly Beijing will declare an equivalent in the South China Sea. But with its “incremental assertiveness” slowly increasing its military capabilities in the South China Sea, Beijing may gradually be working toward a reality where it may already have the capabilities to enforce an ADIZ, even if it does not actually declare one.

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