China appears to be building a third airstrip on hotly contested territory in the South China Sea, according to expert analysis in Washington.
Satellite images taken on September 8, and analysed by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), showed the construction of a 3,000 metre rectangle of reclaimed land at Mischief Reef.
It is similar in size to two airstrips being built by China on other reclaimed reefs in the Spratly islands, known as Truong Sa by Vietnam – at Fiery Reef and Subi.
A new runway would give China three airstrips in the area that could take any plane in the People’s Liberation Army, according to Greg Poling, a senior analyst at CSIS.
China’s construction work in the disputed waters, and its positioning of a giant exploration rig off the central Vietnamese coast last year, have led to tension between Hanoi and Beijing – and a chilling of relations between the two Communist parties.
China said in June that its dredging work on the disputed islands was almost complete.
It said, however, that construction would continue on the newly reclaimed islands, which until a year ago consisted of little more than partially submerged reefs.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia all have claims on the Spratlys and also maintain military facilities in the area – although nothing on the scale of China’s current building programme.
Chinese officials have reiterated what they call Beijing’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratlys and its right to build military facilities there.
President Xi Jinping visits Washington next week and analysts expect tensions in the South China Sea to be high on the agenda.
The United States has previously called on China to stop land reclamation work in the area.
A new airstrip on Mischief Reef would be particularly threatening for The Philippines, which has been conducting exploration for energy resources in the area.
The United States says it will continue to fly its aircraft and sail its ships wherever international law permits in the South China Sea.