Why So Many Countries are Building Airstrips on These Remote Islands

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

The Spratly Islands are not a natural spot to make a connecting flight. They are isolated tiny, shallow islands spread out over a huge chunk of the South China Sea. So why are China and other nations rushing to construct airline runways and other infrastructure there?

On a map, the islands look like someone flicked a paintbrush at Earth and left a trail of tiny, barely visible patches of paint on the vast canvas of the ocean. Together, they only constitute a minuscule square-mile-and-a-half of sand. Yet over the past decade, and especially over the past year, they’ve become the focus international political tension as several countries (most aggressively, China) are trying to strengthen their claims on the much-contested territory.

As The New York Times reported last week, and as we’ve written over the past year, China is turning these tiny archipelagos into larger, infrastructure-supporting islands using a dredging technology that sucks sand from the ocean floor and distributes it via pipe to increase the seven islands’ landmass.

Why So Many Countries Are Building Airstrips on These Remote Islands

Why So Many Countries Are Building Airstrips on These Remote Islands

Reclamation in 2011. Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP. Bottom: Google Maps.

The NYT based its report on information from the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project funded by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is studying the in-flux, fast-developing world of ocean policy in Asia. (Look no further than this recent series on the abuse of workers aboard fishing boats for proof of why it’s a crucial area of study.) The AMTI also keeps a close eye on the Spratly group, and has been the first to report on how they’re changing over the past year, using high-def satellite images from private satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe.

While these islands may eventually be home to all kinds of infrastructure, each of the countries that want to lay claim to the Spratly islands have begun by building the same thing: airstrips. And though China has been hard at work dredging sand, building concrete plants, and paving runways in the Spratlys, it’s hardly the only country to be doing so. In fact, as the AMTI notes in its report, Vietnam built an airstrip on one island in the 1970s:

Why So Many Countries Are Building Airstrips on These Remote Islands

CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe

And Taiwan maintains a runway on a different island:

Why So Many Countries Are Building Airstrips on These Remote Islands

CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe

Most of these islands are barely long enough to fit a runway and have required dredging to create more space. According to the AMTI, not all are in great shape, either. Here is a terrifying video of landing on the “crumbling” airstrip maintained by the Philippines.

So why go to the trouble? Because by building infrastructure on this contested land, countries can stake a claim—which are bolstered by proof that the territory has a permanent population and government, making airstrips a necessity. As the AMTI points out, these airstrips, while tiny, short, and tough to build, extend the airborne reach of any country that controls one. “China may be more readily able to use the airbase for patrols or limited offensive operations against other South China Sea claimants, or even United States assets,” the report states.

Why So Many Countries Are Building Airstrips on These Remote Islands

CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe

This tiny spray of islands, while very remote, are also extremely convenient, in the sense that they’re roughly equidistant from a long list of important cities in Asia. Start thinking peripherally, and the Spratly group starts to look less like an obscure chain of islands and more like an epicentre. [Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative; Lead image: AP Photo/Roley Dela Pena]