China is building its first runway on a disputed island chain in the South China Sea

China has begun construction of a military-length runway on an artificial island in the disputed South China Sea, according to an analysis by IHS Jane’s based on satellite imagery from Airbus Defence and Space.

The runway is being constructed along the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. According to Jane’s, the reef will be capable of holding a runway 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) long. This is well within the length of military runways in China, which range from 2,700 meters to 4,000 meters long.

As of March 23, China had begun paving sections of the runway in the northeast of the island. An apron, where planes could park, was also paved at the end of the construction.

In conjunction with the runway construction, Beijing has also undertaken a program of dredging and expansion of the Fiery Cross Reef. The expansion includes the construction and reinforcement of seawalls around the manmade port in the island’s eastern segment.

According to Jane’s, additional Airbus imagery shows that China is also dredging three new islands on the Subei Reef within the Spratly Islands. If these islands are connected, China could conceivably create and pave an additional 3,000-meter long runway. This is in addition to a recently constructed 3,000-meter runway at Woody Island, on the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

The final construction of a runway at the Subei Reef is likely to antagonize the Philippines, as the reef is “only 25 km from Thitu/Pagasa island, which is occupied by the Philippines and has a civilian population,” Jane’s notes.

As of February 2015, Beijing has completed advanced stages of construction for six different island reefs throughout the sea with construction starting on a seventh, according to Reuters

The islands will serve as forward operating bases for the Chinese military. Once construction is complete, Beijing will be able to use the bases to project their military force throughout the South China Sea.

“China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure — including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks — on some of the man-made islands,” the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated in a staff report from December 2014.

The expansion of Chinese construction in the South China Sea is kicking off a series of territorial disputes with Beijing’s neighbours in the south, all of whom also have competing maritime claims to the reefs and islands:

Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all have military bases within the South China Sea on islands that those countries control.

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