Report: China Building Reinforced Hangars on Disputed Islands

Construction are seen on Subi Reef in the Spratly islands, in the disputed South China Sea in this July 24, 2016 satellite image released by the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to Reuters on August 9, 2016. CSIS... REUTERS

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, satellite photographs taken last month show China building reinforced aircraft hangers capable of handling military planes on three disputed islands in the South China Sea.

CSIS claims the hangars on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly island chain could handle any fighter jet in the Chinese air force, although they have detected no sign of warplanes moving into the new hangars yet, according to Reuters.

The New York Times tactfully suggests these new satellite images “cast doubt on China’s vow not to militarize the disputed islands.”

“A larger type of hangar on the islets can accommodate China’s H-6 bomber and H-6U refueling tanker, a Y-8 transport aircraft and a KJ200 Airborne Warning and Control System plane,” the Times says of CISIS’s analysis, which sounds quite militarized indeed.

Gregory B. Poling of the Center’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative noted the Chinese hangars are “far thicker than you would build for any civilian purpose,” as they have been “reinforced to take a strike.”

Poling said the appearance of the reinforced hangers was not surprising since they’re sitting at the end of runways larger than any non-military purpose would require.

M. Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cut the Chinese some slack, saying the hangars have been under construction for too long to be seen as a peevish backlash against last month’s international court ruling against China. He also suggested China was merely “giving itself the option to use these reefs as military facilities,” so it can mount “a robust defense of those places, or even a power projection.”

Neither of those points will be reassuring to those worried about Chinese aggression in the disputed region.

Reuters carried a response from China’s Defense Ministry, which was even less reassuring than Fravel’s apologetic: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and nearby waters. China has said many times, construction on the Spratly islands and reefs is multipurpose, mixed, and with the exception of necessary military defensive requirements, are more for serving all forms of civil needs.”