The Buzz

Lengthening Chinese Airstrips May Pave Way for South China Sea ADIZ

Never underestimate Chinese engineering. First the Great Wall, then the Grand Canal, and now the Great Wall of Sand.

China is rapidly augmenting features in the South China Sea (SCS) on industrial scale—hundreds of acres (more than 4 square km)—that even its neighbors combined cannot match. “Features,” is the key word here, because many were previously small rocks or reefs not legally considered “islands.” Then China used some of the world’s largest dredgers to build up some of the most pristine coral reefs above water with hundreds of tons of sand, coral cuttings, and concrete. U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris aptly terms China’s creation a “Great Wall of Sand.”

But it’s what China is constructing atop its reclamation that most concerns its neighbors and the United States: militarily relevant facilities, including runways that could allow Beijing to exert increasing influence over the contested SCS.

“Great Wall of Sand” Growing Airstrips

Satellite imagery of Fiery Cross Reef shows over 1,300m of runway completed. The section of reclaimed land where this is occurring could support a runway up to 3,110m long. Fiery Cross is one of the seven features China occupies and is augmenting in the Spratly Islands. At another Spratly feature, Subi Reef, reclamation may also yield sufficient space for an airstrip of similar length. Internet fora have mentioned Mischief Reef as another possible candidate.

The Paracels—the SCS’s other major contested archipelago, likewise home to major Chinese “island building”—include Woody Island. There satellite photos suggest China recently expanded an existing 2,300m runway to 3,000m. Several three km Chinese airstrips may thus be emerging in the roiled SCS.

Contested Coral Reefs

Like many other SCS features, Fiery Cross Reef has long been contested by multiple parties (mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, in this case). Using a UNESCO weather monitoring project as its justification, in 1987 China occupied Fiery Cross Reef, then submerged at high tide save for two small rocks. China initiated construction in early 1988, with a two-story cement structure appearing in 1990. By early 2014, facilities had grown to a ~200-personnel garrison and greenhouse for food production, coastal artillery including a DP-65 grenade launcher, a wharf and helipad, and communications equipment. Fiery Cross served as a center for logistics and reclamation for China’s other Spratly features.

Starting in August 2014, a major new construction project began that is estimated to have cost nearly $12 billion thus far. Dredgers expanded Fiery Cross eleven-fold, to dimensions of 3,000+m by 200-300m (nearly 1 square km). This suggests that it is now the largest Spratly “island,” more than three times larger than Taiping Island (Itu Aba), occupied by Taiwan. Development continues, with at least four cement plants operating in different locations to facilitate rapid construction, more than eighty buildings erected, and five new piers established.

Military Applications

Beijing itself has stated officially that there will be military uses for the new “islands” it has raised from the sea. On March 9, China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that Spratly garrison “maintenance and construction work” was intended in part for “better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” Hua elaborated that construction was designed in part to “satisfy the necessary military defense needs.” Chinese military sources employ similar wording.

The likely translation, in concrete terms:

- better facilities for personnel stationed on the features

- port facilities for logistics, maritime militia, coast guard, and navy ships

- a network of radars to enable monitoring of most of the SCS

- air defense missiles

- airstrips for civilian and military aircraft

Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Samuel Locklear’s April 15 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee supports this assessment: In addition to basing Chinese Coast Guard ships to expand influence over a contested area, “expanded land features down there also could eventually lead to the deployment of things, such as long-range radars, military and advanced missile systems and it might be a platform for them, if they ever wanted to establish an air defense… zone… for them to be able to enforce that from.” 

Beijing contends that its SCS island building activities are primarily for non-military purposes. On April 17, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei listed “fulfilling the Chinese side’s assumption of international responsibilities and obligations in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and disaster reduction, ocean scientific research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production and services, and in other areas.” Beijing touts this brief list as representing unusual transparency on its part: “As a friendly gesture, the Chinese government has also disclosed the full details of the construction work on its territory to reassure its neighbors and remove understandings.” 

Having reiterated this list, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai asserts, “China’s construction of military facilities in the area ‘is only natural and necessary’ and that they are purely for defensive purposes.” He reasons without explanation, “If these facilities could not even defend themselves, how can they render service to others? If China could not safeguard its own sovereignty, how can it shoulder greater responsibilities for international stability?” Left unaddressed: what foreign force would seek to disrupt China’s provision of positive public goods?