Chinese military aircraft have been spotted at China’s largest illegal military base in the disputed South China Sea, suggesting that the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) have started to use the site as a strategic operations base, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Wednesday, citing military surveillance by defense intelligence source Jane’s.
Commercial satellite imagery of the site recorded Monday showed two types of surveillance aircraft beside a military helicopter at Fiery Cross Reef, located within the Philippine’s Spratly Island chain.
Reports of PLANAF’s beefed-up presence at Fiery Cross Reef serve as the latest evidence of China’s increased military activity in the hotly contested South China Sea. Since 2016, China has established military installations in the Spratly Islands by building upon existing geological structures, such as reefs. This activity violates international law, as the Spratly Islands are the sovereign territory of the Philippines.
Monday’s satellite images show a Type 071 amphibious transport ship has docked at the base’s deep harbor, designed to accommodate Chinese warships and Chinese coast guard vessels sent on expeditionary missions in the South China Sea, according to the report.
The recent satellite imagery suggests that the base’s hangar space could house at least three surveillance aircraft, with room for additional aircraft outside of the structure. In the past, hangar space at Fiery Cross Reef has been used to hold Chinese combat aircraft such as bombers, fighter jets, and military transport planes, according to Jane’s.
On May 3, China’s airborne early warning aircraft, the KJ-200 – known for its radar system but also used for military transport – was seen at Fiery Cross Reef, RFA reports.
In May 2018, Reuters, citing U.S. intelligence sources, reported that China installed both anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on Fiery Cross Reef. The report stated that the weapons deployment marked the first time Beijing had installed missiles of either kind on the Spratly Islands, although satellite imagery has documented Chinese surface-to-air missile deployment on the Spratly Islands dating back to at least 2017, as Breitbart News reported at the time.
In recent years, China has occupied Fiery Cross Reef to establish its most prominent illegal military base in the South China Sea. In March, Beijing set up a new scientific “research station” on Fiery Cross, supposedly to study regional ecology. The Fiery Cross military installation was built along with another on Subi, a smaller reef in the Spratly Island chain.
On April 19, Beijing declared it had established two new “administrative districts” to govern the Spratly Islands, which are the sovereign territory of the Philippines, as well as Vietnam’s Paracel Islands to the north. The move drew condemnation from the Philippines and Vietnam, both of whom formally protested the act.
Vietnam, in particular, has faced increasing aggression from China in the South China Sea in recent weeks. On April 3, a Chinese Coast Guard ship hit and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat in Vietnamese waters, a belligerent act for which Vietnam issued an official statement of protest.
On Tuesday, Vietnam’s government announced it would continue fishing operations in Vietnamese waters near its Paracel Islands, despite Chinese attempts to limit Vietnamese fishing rights, RFA reported. On May 1, China issued a fishing ban, prohibiting all fishing activities in an area north of the South China Sea’s 12th parallel, which Beijing illegally claims to have jurisdiction over. Vietnam dismissed Beijing’s fishing ban as “invalid.”
Vietnam’s resistance to China’s encroachment in the South China Sea comes as reports indicate that Malaysia, another Southeast Asian country with claims to the sea, has been less successful in standing up to Beijing’s maritime bullying.
On Tuesday, a Malaysian drillship was forced to halt an oil exploration survey in Malaysian waters after a Chinese survey vessel along with a fleet of escort ships successfully pressured the ship into submission, having shadowed the ship for over a month.
Malaysia’s West Capella drillship was originally contracted by the state’s oil company to conduct oil exploration activities until May 20, according to RFA. Despite this, the ship announced that it had finished its planned operations on Tuesday, indicating that Malaysia submitted to China’s campaign for it to pull out of the area. China unlawfully claims rights over the natural resources Malaysia was exploring through the expedition, and thus thwarted the mission.
The United States and Australia showed support for Malaysia during the month-long aggression by China, deploying warships to sail near the drillship.
In recent months, China has ramped up its military presence in the South China Sea, a valuable waterway full of natural resources like oil and gas reserves, and strategically located to accommodate major trade routes. Despite a 2016 ruling by the International Court of Justice at the Hague declaring Beijing’s South China Sea claims unlawful, China continues to encroach upon and lay claim to territory in the sea already governed by surrounding Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan.