Late last week, an IHS Jane’s report corroborated claims that China was embarking on an island-building project in the South China Sea. Based on satellite imagery, Jane’s reported that China was building an airstrip-capable island on Fiery Cross Reef, a group of three reefs in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. China claims the territory as part of Hainan province’s Sansha prefecture and exerts de facto control over the area. The reef’s central location in the broader South China Sea renders it a strategic position for an island-based airstrip.
The Jane‘s report substantiates speculation earlier this year that China was constructing an airstrip on a man-made island in the South China Sea. Based on the most recent satellite imagery, Jane’s notes that “Chinese dredgers have created a land mass that is almost the entire length of the reef.” Fiery Cross Reef is an underwater reef, but China is looking to develop a new island that is roughly 3 km long and 200 to 300 m wide — just wide enough for a functional airstrip. The strategic advantages of an airstrips in the middle of the South China Sea include shorter resupply routes for deployed PLAN patrols, a base for reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned system, and a potential permanent installation for anti-submarine warfare equipment including undersea radar arrays. For China, this island on Fiery Cross Reef could fulfill the strategic role of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” As Beijing continues to raise the stakes in the South China Sea, developments such as this airstrip will cause concern among the other claimants.
Of all the major claimants of South China Sea territory, China is the only one without an island-hosted airstrip in the region (outside of Hainan Island, off the Chinese coast). As a result, Beijing has claimed a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and even Taiwan (Brunei is the only claimant without a similar asset). In real terms, however, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) remains the most capable navy in the region, both in terms of sheer size and in terms of modernization. Additionally, in recent years, China has significantly expanded its interest in backing up its territorial claims in the South China Sea with kinetic action — in 2012, it seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines and in 2014, it sent naval and coastguard ships into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to support the activities of an oil rig. China bases its claims to the South China Sea on historical maps that it argues are evidence of the South China Sea’s long-standing status as Chinese territory.