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November 26, 2014

China has made yet another move this week to consolidate control over disputed territory in the South China Sea. Satellite images, released by IHS Jane on November 20, show China constructing an island at Fiery Cross Reef, to the west of the Spratly Islands. Estimated at over 3,000 meters long and about 300 meters wide, this new island has enough room for an airstrip.

The South China Sea is one of the most contested areas in the world with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam claiming territory. Of the six countries that lay claim to various territories in the South China Sea, all but Brunei occupy territory there. China is the fourth country to build an airfield in these disputed waters, after Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

China’s recent move to assert itself, then, is not unprecedented. However, it will certainly give territorial rivals a great deal of anxiety. China’s greater military capacity makes any movement in the region appear threatening. As IHS Jane reports, “Given its massive military advantage over the other claimants in terms of quantity and quality of materiel, this facility appears purpose-built to coerce other claimants into relinquishing their claims and possessions, or at least provide China with a much stronger negotiating position if talks over the dispute were ever held.”

Beijing has not admitted to building an airstrip in the region. Instead,  PLA Major General Luo Yuan stated that building on the reef aimed to improve the quality of life for soldiers there, while the Foreign Ministry said it would be useful in search and rescue missions in the region.

Some analysts believe China may be trying to move into a position of strength so it can declare an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea last year. In order to create an ADIZ, China needs the ability to monitor and enforce the zone with both its navy and air force. This airstrip would be the starting point for such an effort. If China does intend to announce an ADIZ in the future, the Fiery Cross Reef island would be just the first in a series.

The United States has asked China to halt these actions, but China denies the United States has any authority over these territorial disputes. China continues to insist on its sovereignty over most of South China Sea. A Global Times article brushes off U.S. attempts to resolve maritime disputes as attempts to contain China. Vietnam and the Philippines have both occupied islands and built bases, the article remarks, “But when China recently gained the ability to do the same, the US stood up and urged all sides to stop these projects. This shows particular bias.”

This event comes only two weeks after President Obama and President Xi announced at APEC that the U.S. and China had agreed to pursue greater military-to-military communication and consultation in military affairs.

For more information on this topic, consult the following sources:

The Christian Science Monitor – “China dismisses US call to halt island construction project in South China Sea”

CNN – “Report: China building ‘airstrip capable’ island in dispute waters”


Global Times – “Yongshu Reef project not a concern of US”


IHS Janes – “China building airstrip-capable island on Fiery Cross Reef”

The New York Times – “China Said to Turn Reef Into Airstrip in Disputed Waters”

Reuters – “China defies U.S. call to stop island project in South China Sea”

Compiled and edited by Molly Bradtke