The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) thinktank based in Washington has said that satellite images show that China has started to build a new airstrip on a third artificial island in contested territory in the South China Sea.
The photographs released by CSIS appear to show an airfield being built on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef and islands China has created on the reefs of the disputed Spratly islands.
CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative director Greg Poling said, “Clearly what we have seen is going to be a 3,000-metre airstrip and we have seen some more work on what is clearly going to be some port facilities for ships,” and added that if it does turn out that runwayis being built, China will have three airstrips in the South China Sea.
Security experts said that the airstrips would strengthen China’s military capacity in the disputed waters.
China has said its artificial islands in the South China Sea do not threaten any other country or affect freedom of navigation by sea or air and that it has the right to establish military facilities on them.
In August China announced a halt to its land reclamation efforts in the sea.
On Wednesday in Beijing Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “necessary” construction work in the South China Sea was improving conditions on the islands but did not adress whether land reclamation has ended.
China’s activities in the waters of southeast Asia have long been a subject of dispute. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam dispute the sovereignty of several islands claimed by China.
Following protests from Philippine citizens, Google removed the Chinese name for disputed waters in the South China Sea from its Maps service in July.
Poling said there are other countries who have airstrips in the disputed waters as well but, unlike China's, none could handle a fourth generation fighter jet. He also said it would be worrying if China were to install air defences.
The US has repeatedly expressed concern about China’s assertive activity in South China Sea. Poling said that when the three airstrips are completed they would allow China to threaten all air traffic over the features it has claimed in the South China Sea.
According to Poling, the latest activity by China in the South China Sea will be a "top tier" issue when President Obama and President Xi meet next week.