The South China Sea: despite having China in the name, it is hotly contested by the titular states as well as others, including Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. According to several aerial surveillance photos taken by the United States’ Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), China is constructing an airstrip at Mischief Reef in the hotly-contested Spratly Islands.
Land reclamation reportedly began in June and is expected to finish within one year. Photos indicate Mischief Reef airstrip may be up to 3,000 meters (3,280 yards) in length. Sand is delivered via the sea and piled to expand the tiny landmass. One Chinese dredger in particular has been spotted widening a shipping channel. Although this a commerce-related discovery, it indicates increased Chinese presence in the region and the potential for even more increased maritime traffic.
This is hardly the first airstrip located in the South China Sea, or even the first Chinese airstrips. Two other airstrips – Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef – are either near to completion or already complete. All three installations are reclaimed in the Spratly Islands, which is also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. Out of all the airstrips in the South China Sea, Fiery Cross Reef is the only one that is large and equipped to handle fourth-generation fighter jets. However, it is projected that Mischief Reef airstrip will be even larger.
China insists that its project does not impede international access to travel in the area, nor is it aimed at any specific state. However, this calls into question to intentions behind intentionally inflaming international relations over the disputed South China Sea.
While many advise crossing China’s maritime borders to commit to further investigations, others advise against belligerent and invasive action. President Obama and China’s President Xi will meet in Washington next week, and Chinese expansion into the South China Sea is expected to be a key issue in their ensuing discussions.