Satellite images published in The Diplomat indicate that China has begun an extensive construction operation in the South China Sea’s Paracel Islands, following years of work building artificial islands in the Spratly Archipelago.
The Diplomat is showcasing images of specific islands in the Paracels, which lie in disputed territory in the body of water. China claims both the Spratly and Paracel Islands for itself, a claim disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Vietnam claims most of the Paracel region China has begun working on.
According to the magazine, Chinese construction crews are working on a helicopter base on Duncan Island, which has required land dredging that has “increase[d] by 50 percent the area of Duncan Island.” In addition to the base, The Diplomat finds evidence for the beginnings of a number of new, potentially military facilities in the region. Construction appears to have begun in earnest in early December 2015. The magazine suggests these facilities may resmeble the “water capture reservoirs and fuel bunkers” constructed illegally on the Spratly Islands.
The new construction occurs just 15 kilometers from Woody Island, where China already boasts a military base, Bloomberg reports. It is not the first time evidence has surfaced of Chinese construction in the Paracel Islands, however. In April 2015, The Diplomat published images showing that the Woody Island military base “is undergoing a major expansion of its runway and airport facilities,” including the installation of a “new concrete runway measuring 2,920 meters in length, accompanied by a new taxiway, expanded runway aprons and adjacent large buildings under construction.”
The construction at the Paracels appears to be similar to that in the Spratly Islands, where China has made islands out of major parts of the Fiery Cross Reef. Environmentalists have suggested that China has destroyed at least 17 reefs in the Spratly region, in international waters also claimed by the Philippines. Construction there has continued despite international outrage and a claim by the Chinese government in June 2015 that construction in the region would be “complete” soon.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested last week that American intelligence expects further construction in the region, describing China’s territorial claims as “exorbitant.” U.S. military officials have for months expressed concern regarding China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, with U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) chief Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., saying this month that the world can expect American Navy freedom of navigation operations to occur more frequently in the region. “I think that as we continue down the path of freedom of navigations, you will see more of them, and you will see them increasing in complexity and scope in areas of challenge,” he said.
Admiral Harris’s remarks followed the latest in a series of such exercises, as the USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands. The U.S. Navy did not send advance warning to Beijing of the missile destroyer’s presence in the region, a move that prompted an infuriated response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, accusing America of seeking “maritime hegemony” and engaging in “dangerous and irresponsible” behavior. The Chinese government reacted similarly in October 2015, when the USS Lassen sailed near the Spratly Islands in a similar freedom of navigation exercise.