A screenshot of IHS Jane's Defense Weekly that shows China’s reclamation work is well advanced on several reefs in the Spratly Islands in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
The Vietnamese received some disquieting news ahead of their Lunar New Year celebrations this year.
On February 15, four days shy of the Lunar New Year, satellite analysis published by IHS Jane's Defense Weekly showed China’s infamous reclamation work is well advanced on several reefs in the Spratly Islands in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
According to the satellite photographs, a new installation is being built on Hughes Reef. Reuters quoted the satellite analysis as describing a "large facility" having been constructed on 75,000 square meters of sand reclaimed since August.
It also published images of Fiery Cross Reef, which now includes a reclaimed island more than 3 km (1.8 miles) long that experts said would likely become a runway, according to Reuters. Work is also well established on Gaven, Cuarteron and Eldad Reefs, with the new dredging taking place on Mischief Reef.
China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring a so-called nine-dash line -- a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer East Sea.
But these maps have been emphatically rejected by international experts and fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
In January, Vietnam joined the Philippines
in lambasting China’s attempts to build islands in the East Sea. Beijing has bristled at diplomatic protests by Manila and Hanoi and criticism from Washington over the reclamation, saying the work falls within the scope of what it calls its sovereignty.
Since August, after withdrawing from Vietnamese waters the infamous oil rig
that bedeviled Sino-Vietnamese ties, China has continued to pursue a number of land reclamation works around small islands in the Spratlys. The Philippines has since last year accused Beijing of reclamation work in the Cuarteron, Johnson, Johnson South and Gaven reefs also in the Spratlys.
Analysts say at a minimum, the new artificial islands would create forward operating bases for commercial activities, fisheries and hydrocarbon exploration, and search and rescue.
“These artificial islands could store material and fuel, house repair and maintenance facilities, dock ships, [or] provide medical care,” said Carl Thayer, an Australia-based East Sea expert. “These artificial islands could also provide a location for radar and other early warning systems to enhance China's ability to know what is going on in the [East] Sea.”
“In the long term, these artificial islands will be linked up with very large floating docks that include will enhance all of the activities just mentioned. China will be able to colonize these artificial islands by settling people on them.”
Several analysts say China is building up those bases with airstrips in order to be able to unilaterally declare and enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) above the South China Sea, which they did in the East China Sea in late 2013, where China has another lingering dispute with Japan. Beijing irked both Tokyo and Washington when it imposed the ADIZ at that time.
These analysts say the big issue for China when imposing the ADIZ in the South China Sea is the US flights of P8 ASW planes.
“This is a serious threat to China's military deterrent capability and they are determined to stop it. Their attempt to enforce the ADIZ is what is most likely to cause an incident with the US,” Zach Abuza, a US-based analyst, told Thanh Nien News.
“The Chinese have been unable to enforce the ADIZ in the East China Sea, so I think they really want to be able to do so when they are ready to declare the ADIZ over the South China Sea,” he said.
Reuters quoted Roilo Golez, a former Philippine national security adviser, as saying that China was expected to wrap up its reclamation work by early next year and announce an ADIZ within three years.
"They are connecting the dots. They're putting real muscle into this," Golez said.
But at least at this stage, analysts say Chinese land reclamation activities are not aimed at establishing a base for a future Air Defense Identification Zone.
“China just doesn't have the space to park, service and maintain an air fleet capable of imposing air control over the South China Sea,” Thayer said. “The artificial islands being created by land reclamation are in the middle of a semi-enclosed sea and would be vulnerable from US aircraft rotating in and out of the Philippines and northern Australia as well as a US carrier battle group.”
Given that, for the US, which has always tried to reassure Asia that it is a vocal critic of China’s claim to the East Sea, the best it can do is to continue condemning against Beijing.
But “China will [just] ignore these protests,” Thayer said.