China starts construction in South China Sea islets
The photos, taken on March 6 by the satellite imaging company Planet Labs, presumably show land clearing and the early stages of construction work for what might become a military harbor on North Island, according to Reuters. Building work on the new facility is believed to have been set back by a typhoon last year.
Despite the activity being recorded on satellite imagery, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said it was “not familiar” with any work at North Island.
“What needs to be stressed is that the Xisha (Paracel) Islands are China’s inherent territory,” the Ministry said after Taipei Times sought comment.
North Island is one of the numerous small coral islands and reefs in the contested archipelago in the South China Sea, where China is in territorial disputes with several other countries.
Controlling the Paracels are key to Beijing’s dominance in the South China Sea, through which billions of dollars of trade pass through each year.
“The Paracels are going to be vital to any future Chinese attempt to dominate the South China Sea,” Carl Thayer, a South China Sea expert at Australia’s Defence Force Academy, told Reuters. “We can see they are committed to militarization, whatever the official rhetoric tells us, even if they are going to do it bit by bit.”
The new satellite images have been released just ahead of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Asia trip later this week. He is due to visit China, Japan, and South Korea.
The United States has consistently opposed China’s interests in the region and the Trump administration has not changed this view, with Tillerson proclaiming in January that Chinese access to the disputed islands in the South China Sea “is not going to be allowed.”
Beijing had earlier called Washington’s involvement in the dispute the “greatest” threat to the region, accusing the US of displaying a show of force by increasing its military strength and that of its allies in the region.
Washington has ignored numerous warnings from China and have deployed additional warships in the disputed zone, conducted maneuvers near China’s artificial islands, and flown over them while claiming “freedom of navigation.”
The official stance of the Chinese government is that the Paracel Islands, or Xisha in Chinese, is China’s rightful territory. Beijing seized control of the islands in 1974 after a brief confrontation with the South Vietnamese Navy. Vietnam still claims the islands as part of its territory, which is also claimed by Taiwan.
In a statement on Tuesday, Taiwanese presidential spokesman Alex Huang said Taipei would be keeping a close eye on Chinese construction work in the Paracels, and called on all the parties involved to put aside their differences to promote peace and stability in the region.
At the end of February, satellite images obtained Reuters and by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), reportedly showed China’s HQ-9 air defense missile system being installed in the Spratlys.
The North Island, where the latest military installations are reportedly taking shape, forms part of an arc of reefs that act as a protective screen for Woody Island. That island already has civilian facilities and a listening post, the Taipei Times notes.
Last year it was also widely reported that China had installed surface-to-air missile launchers and jets at bases on Woody Island in the Paracels, which as the Taipei Times notes are helping Beijing protect its nuclear submarine facilities on Hainan Island, at the nation’s southernmost point.