12 September 2015

Chinese Activity in South China Sea Poses Complications for Obama

Check out this related sequence of amazing island building photos!

Steven Mufson, “Chinese Activity in South China Sea Poses Complications for Obama,” Washington Post, 11 September 2015.

China appears to be taking new steps to lay down airfields on two reefs in a disputed area of the South China Sea on the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Sept. 24 arrival in Washington for a state visit. 

Commercial satellite photos taken Tuesday for the Center for Strategic and International Studies show that China is flattening, rolling and putting gravel on an area the size of a military runway on Subi Reef, a once-submerged shoal that Beijing has built up into an area suitable for a military base. The flattened area is about 200 feet wide and nearly 1.4 miles long but is expected to grow and be covered with asphalt, say China experts who have examined the satellite photos.

On Mischief Reef, China has also completed, and started pouring fill into, a retaining wall in a space nearly two miles long — part of a process that is identical to what was done earlier on Subi Reef and Woody Island, where an airfield has been completed, the experts say.

The new construction seems certain to strain the meeting between Xi and President Obama, whose national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, was recently in Beijing. The United States has urged China to stop work in the region, and Beijing said in August that it would halt reclamation. But the satellite photos show that construction continues. …

“When the Chinese government said it had mainly finished the work, it clearly hadn’t,” said Michael J. Green, a senior vice president at CSIS and former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. …

Green said Chinese officials have told him in private that they intend to militarize the reefs and islands with planes, antiaircraft weapons and naval vessels. He said that would allow the People’s Liberation Army air force to have “overlapping air control over the South China Sea, and not just from one airfield but from three.” He said that “it won’t stop the U.S. policy of asserting freedom of navigation, but it makes it a lot more complicated operation.” …

Related analysis:

Victor Robert Lee, “South China Sea: Satellite Imagery Makes Clear China’s Runway Work at Subi Reef,” The Diplomat, 8 September 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Runway Construction at Subi Reef—China Building 2nd ~3km Airstrip in Spratlys, 3rd in South China Sea (ex-Hainan),” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 7 September 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Lengthening Chinese Airstrips May Pave Way for South China Sea ADIZ,” The National Interest, 27 April 2015.

Relevant policy recommendations:

Andrew S. Erickson, “New U.S. Security Strategy Doesn’t Go Far Enough on South China Sea,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, Testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Hearing on “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea,” Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 23 July 2015.