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Beijing's South China Sea Military Buildup Continues: The Dramatic Visual Evidence

On Tuesday, Reuters, citing unnamed US officials, reported that Washington will not look to impose sanctions on Chinese entities allegedly behind hundreds of cyber attacks on US targets prior to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington next week. 

The proposed sanctions are a sore spot for Beijing and some analysts were concerned that their imposition could jeopardize Xi’s visit. Others suggested that not moving ahead swiftly risked sending the wrong message about how seriously the US takes the alleged cyber intrusions, but that concern seems to have taken a backseat to polite diplomacy. “Imposing sanctions before Xi's high-profile visit, which will include a black tie state dinner at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama, would be a diplomatic disaster,” one source told Reuters. 

The decision underscores the difficult position the US finds itself in when attempting to craft the appropriate response to China’s new role as a key player on the international stage. Indeed, the world is closer to bipolarity now than at any time since the Cold War, which means a heavy handed approach by the Americans is simply not an attractive option. Nowhere is this dilemma more apparent than in the US’s response to Beijing’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. 

The construction of what’s now likely to be more than 3,000 acres of new sovereign territory atop reefs in the Spratlys has raised eyebrows among Washington’s regional allies and tensions heightened considerably after the PLA essentially threatened to shoot down a US spy plane over the new islands earlier this year. China also faces allegations from Japan that its oil and gas operations in the East China Sea violate an agreement to develop the fields jointly. 

Despite the fact that China claimed to have largely completed its dredging efforts in the Spratlys in June, Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, tells a different story. Here’s what Glaser has to say about a series of new images shown below and available at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative:

China is still dredging in the South China Sea. Satellite imagery of Subi Reef taken in early September shows dredgers pumping sediment onto areas bordered by recently built sea walls and widening the channel for ships to enter the waters enclosed by the reef. On Mischief Reef, a dredger is also at work expanding the channel to enable easier access for ships, possibly for future use as a naval base.

 

This activity comes in the wake of assertions by China that its land reclamation has ended in the Spratly Island chain. On August 5, during the ASEAN Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told reporters, “China has already stopped. You look, who is building? Take a plane and look for yourself.” He did not pledge that China would refrain from construction and militarization on the newly-created islands, however.

 

Wang Yi reiterated that China’s construction on the islands is mainly “to improve the working and living conditions of personnel there” and for “public good purposes.” To date, however, China’s activity appears focused on construction for military uses. Recently built structures on Fiery Cross Reef include a completed and freshly painted 3,000-meter runway, helipads, a radar dome, a surveillance tower, and possible satellite communication facilities.

 

Apparent Chinese preparations for building lengthy airstrips on Subi and Mischief raise questions about whether China will pose challenges to freedom of navigation in the air and sea surrounding those land features in the future.

 

The persistence of dredging along with construction and militarization on China’s artificial islands underscore Beijing’s unwillingness to exercise self-restraint and look for diplomatic paths to reduce tensions with its neighbors, the United States, and other nations with an interest in the preservation of peace and stability in the South China Sea. U.S. calls for all claimants in the South China Sea to halt land reclamation, construction, and militarization have been rejected by China, which views the status quo as unfavorable to its interests.

 

On the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, Beijing appears to be sending a message to President Barack Obama that China is determined to advance its interests in the South China Sea even if doing so results in heightened tensions with the United States.

And more from Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies and the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS and AMTI director.

Earlier this year, the addition of an airfield on Fiery Cross Reef provided a more southerly runway capable of handling most if not all Chinese military aircraft. And in June, satellite photos indicated that China was preparing to lay down another runway at Subi Reef. New photos taken on September 3 show grading work at Subi, providing further evidence that runway construction there is planned. Meanwhile work at the Fiery Cross airfield is well advanced, with China recently laying down paint.

 

Satellite photos taken on September 8 contain an unanticipated development, indicating that China may be preparing to construct another airstrip at Mischief Reef. These images show that a retaining wall has been built along the northwest side of the reef, creating a roughly 3,000-meter rectangular area. 

And the new visuals:

We'll close with the following from Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington who spoke to Bloomberg

“The Chinese have a classic Sun Tzu philosophy of incremental steps. Because it is small steps, the Americans and their allies will not be able to respond in a strong fashion because they will seem to be over reacting. That is what makes China’s approach so infuriating.”