China has reportedly started construction of its first runway on reclaimed parts of Fiery Cross Reef on the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
The latest claims made in IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly follow analysis of Airbus Defence and Space’s 23 March satellite imagery, which showed a paved section of 503m x 53m runway on the north-eastern side of Fiery Cross Reef, as well as paving and ground preparation of other sections of the airstrip further along the archipelago.
In addition, workers are believed to have paved approximately 400m x 20m of apron for taxiing and parking fighter and surveillance aircraft.
According to the publication, construction work on Fiery Cross Reef has created a landmass that can house a runway 3,000m long, which is well within the length of China People’s Liberation Army Air Force runways that range from 2,700m to 4,000m.
Meanwhile, satellite imagery taken on 6 February and 5 March indicate that China is also dredging three new artificial islands on Subi Reef, within the Spratly Islands, which the communist country contests with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
By 5 March, at least nine dredgers were allegedly creating larger landmasses on the reef, which if joined together could create enough land for the second 3,000m-long airstrip.
A US State Department spokesman was reported by BBC News as saying that the country does ‘not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarise outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability’.
However, China insists that work on some of the Spratly Islands landmasses in the South China Sea falls entirely within its sovereignty.
A commentary carried by Xinhua News Agency read: "China’s work on the islands mostly serves civil purposes apart from meeting the needs of military defence.
"China is aiming to provide shelter, aid in navigation, weather forecasts and fishery assistance to ships of various countries passing through the sea."
The publication also alleged that China was working to expand the runway at Woody Island in the Paracel Islands from its existing length of 2,300m to about 3,000m.