How China Intimidates Half of Asia With Its Sea Fortresses
Many neighbors feel threatened by the People’s Republic. Satellite images show how Beijing has massively expanded its military influence, especially in the South China Sea.
“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Jörn Petring“. Access the original article here.
China’s militarization of islands and atolls in the South China Sea began quietly. Back in the late 1990s, the Chinese had a small structure built on stilts above a coral reef just over 200 kilometers from the Philippine Island of Palawan. At the time, the government in Beijing assured that it was only meant to be an emergency shelter for fishermen. Today, Mischief Reef is unrecognizable on satellite images.
The island was artificially enlarged by sand fillings, LiveEO’s pictures prove. An airstrip and numerous military buildings have been built. According to the U.S. think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), large anti-aircraft guns and other close-range weapon systems have long since been installed.
As with Mischief Reef, China has proceeded with numerous reefs in the region in recent years. The Chinese military has turned them into fortresses in the middle of the ocean. China claims almost the entire South China Sea for itself.
Images: LiveEO/Maxar, LiveEO/Sentinel
This is precisely what has been a sensitive geopolitical issue for years. The U.S. and China’s neighbors accuse Beijing of increasing militarization of the region. The International Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected the territorial claims in 2016. China ignores the ruling.
Just last week, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Palawan to symbolically throw her support behind the Philippines. China claims the entire Spratly archipelago in the region, while Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines each claim a portion of the islands.
Harris met with citizens, fishermen and members of the Philippine Coast Guard during her visit. “I am here in Palawan to underscore the importance of our partnership,” she said. As an ally, the U.S. stands with the Philippines “in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea,” she said. “Unlawful and irresponsible behavior” will not be tolerated, she said: “If the international rules-based order is threatened anywhere, it is threatened everywhere.”
But China is not impressed by such talk. Neither is it impressed by the increasing patrols of U.S. naval vessels in the region. China’s presence continues to grow.
Subi Reef has also undergone a remarkable transformation. Uninhabited ten years ago, a massive military base now occupies the site. In new satellite imagery, much of the area is built upon. There are hangars and a lighthouse. Several radar towers and defense installations can also be seen. Even a sports stadium has been built.
The Fiery Cross reef has also undergone a remarkable transformation. Large, multistory hangars now exist there, which the U.S. claims can also accommodate ballistic missiles. Radar systems can be seen throughout the island. Photos recently released by the U.S. of a spy plane also revealed that the island has been outfitted with anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft missile systems and jamming systems.
Images: LiveEO/Google Earth
While the Chinese government stresses that these are exclusively defensive weapons systems, observers warn that the likelihood of clashes is increasing as militarization increases. But observers warn that as militarization increases, so does the likelihood of clashes. Militarization that continues elsewhere: on the (former) Gaven Reef.
Just last Monday, an incident occurred in the region. According to the Philippine military, the Chinese coast guard blocked one of the country’s naval vessels. This was in the process of retrieving metal debris – apparently remnants of a Chinese missile – from the sea. The Chinese coast guard cut the towline and took the metal object, it said.
The dispute goes far beyond the Spratly Islands. China claims about 80 percent of the 3.5 million-square-meter South China Sea. While the Spratly Islands lie to the south, further north the dispute is over the 130 coral islands called Paracel, which Vietnam also claims. In the East China Sea, China is in dispute with Japan over the islands known as Diaoyu in Chinese or Senkaku in Japanese, 200 kilometers northeast of Taiwan. The dispute over the rocky islands flared up again in 2012 when Japan’s government bought three islands from private hands. In late 2013, China imposed an air defense zone over the East China Sea.