China has started fresh construction work in the disputed South China Sea, new satellite images show, a sign that Beijing is continuing to strengthen its military reach across the vital trade waterway.
Regional military attaches and experts believe the work shows China’s determination to build up its network of reefs and islets, even if it is seeking to avoid a fresh confrontation with the US President Donald Trump’s administration.
An image of North Island (北島) in the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) taken on Monday last week shows recent work including land clearing and possible preparation for a harbor to support what experts believe might be eventual military installations. Initial work was damaged in a typhoon last year.
The pictures, provided by private satellite firm Planet Labs, follow reports in January showing work undertaken on nearby Tree Island (Jhaoshu Island, 趙述島) and other features in the Paracels, which are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
Diplomats briefed on the latest Western intelligence assessments say Beijing is pursuing efforts to dominate its maritime “backyard,” even if it tweaks the timing of moves to avoid being overtly provocative.
“The Paracels are going to be vital to any future Chinese attempt to dominate the South China Sea,” said Carl Thayer, a South China Sea expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “We can see they are committed to militarization, whatever the official rhetoric tells us, even if they are going to do it bit by bit.”
Photo: Chung Li-hua, Taipei Times
The more widely disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) to the south are higher profile, but the Paracels are key to China’s presence in the South China Sea.
China has temporarily based surface-to-air missile launchers and jets at long established bases on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) in the Paracels, helping protect its nuclear submarine facilities on Hainan Island.
North Island is part of an arc of reefs that are expected to form a protective screen for Woody, which includes civilian facilities and a listening post.
Zhang Baohui (張寶輝), a security expert at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said he believed China was pursuing its goal of strengthening its facilities in the Paracels and had calculated that the Trump administration would not overreact given other priorities.
“There’s also uncertainty with this young Trump administration, but this is very important work to the Chinese ... the Paracels are vital to defending Hainan, which is in turn important to China’s nuclear deterrent,” Zhang said. “The calculation here is that it is really only Vietnam that will be rattled by this.”
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense said it was “not familiar” with any work at North Island.
“What needs to be stressed is that the Xisha Islands are China’s inherent territory,” it said.
A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was unable to confirm new construction work on North Island, but said it would not be surprising.
“It would be in line with what they have been doing, why else would they be clearing land on the islands but for militarization,” the official said. “There is no other reason to have a presence there.”
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