After flying a surveillance plane over the South China Sea last February, the Philippine government saw how China was constructing islands in order to bolster its claim to the territory. (See above.) It even suspected that China might plan to build a military air strip to protect it. Looks like they were right.
The BBC just published a rich feature on China's island factory in the middle of the world's third busiest waterway. Among other unsettling details, the report confirms the Philippines' fears: "China seems to be preparing to build an air base with a concrete runway long enough for fighter jets to take off and land." Here's what it's supposed to look like when it's done:
It's not a total revelation, however. Plans drawn up by a state-owned contractor for a purported Chinese military base to be built near the Spratly archipelago in the middle of the South China Sea showed up online earlier this summer. Until now, however, not many Western journalists have been able to get near enough to the disputed area to verify that this was a real project and not some zany pipedream.
The country built the islands so that it can lay claim to the exclusive economic zone that surrounds them for 200 nautical miles, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. This would mean China could control much of the South China Sea, a vital waterway for region. It doesn't hurt that there's supposed to be massive deposits of oil and natural gas beneath the Spratly Islands. The air base is meant to defend all of that.
Renderings of various areas on the island from the CSSC.
Of course, just because China looks like it's building a base does not mean that it's going to start landing fighter jets there in the near future. It's possible that the new construction is just saber rattling. There are already a handful of islands built in the South China Sea, so it's actually not that crazy that China would want to defend them, either—especially given its belligerent history with other countries laying claim to the waterway, like the Philippines.
Chinese construction of a new island as seen from a Philippine military surveillance plane in 2013.
Why now? Well, China's clearly flexing its muscles in the region and the United States is taking notice. Building a military base in the middle of the ocean is just another method for accomplishing the same goal. [BBC, PhilStar, NYT]
Images via Philippine armed forces / China State Shipbuilding Corporation