- China is reclaiming land at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, according to satellite imagery
- The reclamation, which started in August, is creating a land mass large enough for a 3,000 m-long airstrip
China is building an island at least 3,000 m long on Fiery Cross Reef that could be the site for its first airstrip in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Satellite imagery of the island taken on 8 August and 14 November shows that in the past three months Chinese dredgers have created a land mass that is almost the entire length of the reef.
Fiery Cross Reef lies to the west of the main Spratly island archipelago and was previously under water; the only habitable area was a concrete platform built and maintained by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The new island is more than 3,000 m long and between 200 and 300 m wide: large enough to construct a runway and apron. The dredgers are also creating a harbour to the east of the reef that would appear to be large enough to receive tankers and major surface combatants.
The existing structure on the reef’s southwestern edge was home to a PLAN garrison and had a pier, air-defence guns, anti-frogmen defences, communications equipment, and a greenhouse. The concrete structure is currently not attached to the new island, but if previous Chinese land reclamation projects in the Spratlys are any guide, it is only a matter of time before it is joined up.
The Spratly Islands are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. All but Brunei occupy islands or have built structures on reefs and shoals to assert their claims.
The land reclamation at Fiery Cross is the fourth such project undertaken by China in the Spratly Islands in the last 12-18 months and by far the largest in scope. China has built new islands at Johnson South Reef, Cuateron Reef, and Gaven Reefs, but none are large enough to house an airstrip in their current form.
Ship tracking data from IHS Maritime shows substantial activity at the reef since May 2014. Analysts drew attention to two ships in particular: Jin Hang Jun 406 , a grab dredger that is fixed on a pontoon, and 3,086-tonne cutter suction dredger Xin Hai Tun . Both have been instrumental in dredging and cutting channels into the new harbour basin.
IHS Jane’s previously reported on China’s reclamation project in the Spratlys and noted that until recently Fiery Cross appeared to be acting as a staging post for other island building projects. Given its status as the largest PLAN facility in the Spratlys, this seemed to be an anomaly, something that the 14 November imagery has now corrected.
China has been at a distinct disadvantage compared with other claimants in the Spratly Islands as it is the only claimant not to occupy an island with an airfield. Taiwan has Itu Aba (Taiping) island, the Philippines has Pagasa island, Malaysia has Swallow Reef (a reef on which it reclaimed land and built an airstrip), and Vietnam has Southwest Cay.
The work at Fiery Cross thus brings parity but is likely to cause alarm among the other claimants. China has previously shown it is willing to spend blood and treasure to assert its territorial claims in this region. 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.