One satellite image, taken by Planet Labs PBC on August 10 and analyzed by The Daily Beast, shows new construction on Triton island, the westernmost island of the Paracel Islands near Vietnam. China has occupied the Paracel Islands since the 1970s, but Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to the archipelago.
Compared with a Planet Labs PBC satellite image of the same island in March, Beijing has been busy building up the island, which clocks in at about 1 mile by several thousand feet across, according to maps.
The construction of the airstrip on Triton island began in the last several weeks, according to The Drive, which first reported on the development. The airstrip is likely more than 600 meters or about 2,000 feet long, which could accommodate turboprop aircraft and drones, according to an analysis from the Associated Press.
The airstrip is the latest indication that Beijing is continuing to militarize islands as part of a broader strategy to expand China’s presence in the South China Sea. Just last year, China had fully militarized three islands in the South China Sea, in a move that the Pentagon assessed was aimed at destabilizing the region and allowing China to extend its offensive capabilities beyond its own shores, by flying fighters, bombers, and more.
China has offered few explanations about its construction work on islands in the South China Sea, except to say it will help ships safely navigate the South China Sea, and claiming it is defensive in nature. In some cases, China has outright denied accusations that it is building man-made islands in the South China Sea, and has refused to admit it is militarizing the region, which sees $5 trillion worth of trade pass through annually.
But Beijing has been slowly building up reefs into islands in the South China Sea for years, adding military outposts and assets over time, including missiles, radar systems, and air strips. In many cases where islands didn’t exist in the sea, China has taken it upon itself to create new islands entirely, drawing condemnation from the United States, which has sanctioned the Chinese entities that helped Beijing build artificial islands and militarize them.
The buildup on the islands could help China with key logistics that could help it project force in the region, which is particularly concerning given Beijing’s increasingly aggressive and coercive behavior in the region in recent months, according to Kitsch Liao, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.
“The focus here is on recon, is about targeting, about surveillance. What I can see, what I can actually track, because you cannot hit what you cannot see or track,” Liao told The Daily Beast. “That’s the most important thing in the first opening shot of any potential war, and even in the runup to that.”
In recent years, China has equipped several Spratly islands with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment as well as fighter jets.
For China, extending its territorial claims could be key to shaping a potential conflict in the region.
“The advantage it can actually offer to the opening phase of the war, during the escalation, during the posturing, during recon, shaping the conflict,” he said. This “is going to be valuable.“
“Force projection is not just getting your troop transports, getting your carriers, getting your areas of effect… to where they need to be. You also need to have a sophisticated logistical network everywhere,” Liao added.
It’s not clear if the islands would survive in a war, which could suggest that they are aimed more at preparatory steps for conflict, warned Si-fu Ou, of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.
“The Great Walls of SCS have been built on sand, which are vulnerable during the war because they are not defensible,” Ou said. “In peacetime, however, the man-made islands are quite useful to conduct a variety of the missions, for instance, presence, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), situation awareness, and gray zone-tactics.”
“Well, I’m here… what are you going to do about it?”
The new apparent airstrip on Triton island looks like it may help China threaten Vietnam, Ou said.
“The main target of Triton Island is Vietnam, not Taiwan,” he told The Daily Beast. “This is [the] Chinese grand strategy in the SCS. From the preliminary assessment, the build-up on Triton Island may be a secondary base in the Paracel Islands [which could] function as [an] auxiliary base for the main base on the Woody Island.”
Woody Island, China’s major military base in the Paracel islands, already boasts approximately 1,000 in population, an airstrip, hangars for combat aircraft, and HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries.
The Triton island buildup could also be an attempt at making a potential move to seize Taiwan more complicated for China’s enemies to successfully counteract, Brad Martin, a retired U.S. Navy officer and a senior policy researcher at RAND, told The Daily Beast.
“It’s just a way of multiplying places to put things. And in addition the more places they have to put things, if a war should occur, the more places they can go, the more places the United States and its partners, allies have to target. And that creates a resource drain for the force. It will be trying to defend Taiwan,” said Martin, who previously served as an operations analyst at the Pentagon’s Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. “The more lily pads there are, the more places there are to play whack a mole, the harder it is for the opposing force to deal with it.”
China has previously claimed that its island buildup is only defensive in purpose. But concerns have been raised in recent years that Beijing’s expanding tentacles of influence and military outposts in the region could allow it to quickly whir into gear and send military assets to the islands in a time of crisis. It has also raised questions about whether China could interfere with vital trade routes, or try to contest the transit of foreign nations’ aircraft or vessels while laying claim to islands and their adjacent waters.
Its buildup on islands overlaps with territorial interests from Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
In addition to China’s increasing threats to Taiwan, its aggressive behavior towards Vietnam has been kicking up a notch in recent months. A Chinese research ship and five escort vehicles refused to leave Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—the area of ocean that extends 200 nautical miles beyond a nation’s territorial sea—this May. When confronted about the entry into Vietnam’s EEZ, China’s foreign ministry waved off the issue, claiming that the islands China lays claim to and their adjacent waters are fair game.
“Relevant ships of China carry out normal activities under China’s jurisdiction. It is legitimate and lawful, and there is no issue of entering other countries’ exclusive economic zones,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, according to Reuters.
China’s Coast Guard has also had a series of run-ins with the Philippines this year in the Spratly Islands.
Building on Triton Island is part of Beijing’s strategy of proving that the islands are indeed Chinese. By establishing facilities and outposts and moving people to these islands, Beijing is working to establish a “pattern of life” that cements an understanding that this is Chinese territory.
“The whole process of laying claim to territory in the South China Sea is a tactic of saying, ‘well, I’m here. I feel of course I should be here, what are you going to do about it?’ They’ve been doing this gradually—not at a level that the United States feels like it should actively resist but at a level where steadily a pattern of life is being established that says that this is their territory,” Martin said.
The United States is currently working to send the message that these waters around these islands are not waters China can lawfully claim by conducting “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) near the disputed islands. The United States has already sent a U.S. guided-missile destroyer to conduct FONOPs near the Paracel and Spratly Islands on at least two occasions this year, as it has in previous years, to prove the point. The operations draw protests from Beijing, which claims the FONOPs violate China’s sovereignty.
For years, Triton Island has appeared to play a role in Beijing’s claim over the Paracel Islands, where large swaths of territory showing off China’s flag have been displayed.
The satellite photos Planet Labs shared with The Daily Beast show two large fields with what look like images meant to represent China’s flag and the ruling Communist Party.
For now, it’s not clear if the construction on Triton island will stop at just the airstrip. But China is holding firmly to its narrative: On Friday, a foreign ministry spokesperson claimed in a press conference that Triton Island is “part of China’s inherent territory.”
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