The Philippines-based Inquirer has gotten its hands on high resolution aerial photographs of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratly group in the South China Sea. The images are among the best we’ve seen of the remarkable facilities and equipment China has emplaced on these islands, which didn’t exist just five years ago.
The photographs underline the extent of China’s militarization of the islands — particularly since 2016. That year marked two important milestones in the South China Sea. First, the Hague-based tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration convened after the Philippines filed a case against China in 2013 ruled in Manila’s favor on nearly all counts and invalidated China’s nebulous nine-dash line claim.
Second, just days before the award was granted, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office, and brought a healthy contempt for the United States with him. Duterte would immediately pursue rapprochement with Beijing and turn a blind eye to Chinese activities on the artificial islands, giving Beijing a major opportunity to press on despite the award.
The photographs acquired by the Inquirer were taken between June and December 2017 and show in remarkable detail China’s fighter-ready hangers, shelters for anti-ship cruise missiles, ammunition storage depots, and a range of electronic and signals intelligence equipment, including over-the-horizon radars, various radomes, and communication towers.
The photographs, interestingly, also capture the presence of several Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels. While the regular presence of and patrols by both CCG and PLAN vessels in the vicinity of these artificial islands have long been known, it’s interesting to see the precise classes of vessels China has chosen to deploy in the Spratlys.
The images show multiple transport ships, an amphibious transport dock, and multiple classes of missile frigates. By mid-2017, when these images were taken, China’s fig leaf of non-militarization — one that was stated by Chinese President Xi Jinping alongside U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in 2015 — had gone away.
There’s no question anymore than China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys have been militarized. Beijing has three — Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief reefs — ready to service any aircraft in the Chinese military’s inventory with 3,000 meter runways. The power projection capacity is there. In the coming months and years, Beijing will begin to make the most of its improved position in the South China Sea.