Meet Fiery Cross Reef, China's Man-Made Military Island Outpost

Last week, we noted the hilarious irony in President Obama’s contention that China was “using its sheer size and muscle to force other countries into subordinate positions.” That of course, is a picture perfect description of US foreign policy and so the statement by the President is effectively an indictment of Washington’s own actions. 

Obama’s remarks were made in the context of China’s construction “activities” in the South China Sea where Beijing shares contested waters with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Essentially, China is building islands atop the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago, which some believe will be used for military purposes. Here’s NY Times, summarizing: 

The construction on Fiery Cross Reef is part of a larger Chinese reclamation project involving scores of dredgers on at least five islands in the South China Sea. China is converting tiny reefs, once barely visible above water, into islands big enough to handle military hardware, personnel and recreation facilities for workers.


Satellite images of the reclamation efforts have been released in steady doses over the last few months, as smaller countries with claims to islands in the area have voiced concern about China’s accelerated construction, and as the United States has stepped up its criticism...


China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, arguing that a “nine-dash line” that it drew around the waterway in the late 1940s conforms to its rights there. No other country recognizes the validity of the nine-dash line, and many fear that China’s reclamation activities are part of a drive to create an inevitability about Chinese ownership.

Now, a series of satellite images have confirmed the construction of a 10,000 foot runway on the reef, which would appear to suggest that China may be planning on landing military aircraft such as fighter jets on the reclaimed islands. Here, in glorious HD, are the visuals accompanied by descriptions via the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative:

Satellite photography has identified three cement plants operating on the island.

China has already constructed in excess of 60 semi-permanent or permanent buildings.

At least 20 structures are visible on the southern side of the island (ZH: including a helipad).

China is building an airstrip on the island. The airstrip is likely large enough to land nearly any Chinese aircraft.

Images taken on April 11 show the runway more than one-third complete.

Beijing is also installing port facilities which may be capable of docking military tankers.

Full interactive report available here from the AMTI


Here’s more color from NY Times on what this may mean from a military and geopolitical perspective:

The runway, which is expected to be about 10,000 feet long — enough to accommodate fighter jets and surveillance aircraft — is a game changer in the competition between the United States and China in the South China Sea, said Peter Dutton, professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.


“This is a major strategic event,” Mr. Dutton said. “In order to have sea control, you need to have air control…”


In time, Mr. Dutton said, China is likely to install radar and missiles that could intimidate countries like the Philippines, an American ally, and Vietnam, which also have claims to the Spratlys, as they resupply modest military garrisons in the area.


More broadly, he said, China’s ability to use Fiery Cross Reef as a landing strip for fighter and surveillance aircraft will vastly expand its zone of competition with the United States in the South China Sea…


“We absolutely think it is for military aircraft, but of course an airstrip is an airstrip — anything can land on it if it’s long enough,” said James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor for Jane’s Defense Weekly...


“The main question is, what else would land there?” he said. “Unless they are planning to turn these into resorts — which seems unlikely, not least given the statement from the Foreign Ministry last week — then military aircraft are the only things that would need to land there.”

And a bit more from Reuters

Senator John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Chinese moves "aggressive" and said they showed the need for the Obama administration to act on plans to move more military resources into the economically important Asian region and boost cooperation with Asian countries worried by China.


McCain referred to a U.S. intelligence assessment from February that China's military modernization was designed to counteract U.S. strength and said Washington had a lot of work ahead to maintain its military advantage in the Asia-Pacific.


"When any nation fills in 600 acres of land and builds runways and most likely is putting in other kinds of military capabilities in what is international waters, it is clearly a threat to where the world's economy is going, has gone, and will remain for the foreseeable future," he told a public briefing in Congress.


A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said the scale of China’s land reclamation and construction was fueling concerns within the region that China intends to militarize its outposts and stressed the importance of freedom of navigation.


"The United States has a strong interest in preservation of peace and security in the SouthChina Sea. We do not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarize outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability."

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This comes at an interesting time for relations between Beijing and Washington. China’s recent move to evacuate foreign nationals from the embattled Yemeni port city of Aden marked the first time the rising superpower has participated in an international rescue effort. During the same week, state television indicated the country would begin its first patrol by nuclear submarine later this year.

Meanwhile, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank marks a coup in the post-war economic era, as the multilateral institution will seek to plug holes left by the US-dominated IMF and the Japan-influenced ADB, while simultaneously positioning the yuan to play a more prominent role in what is quickly becoming a new economic world order characterized by the ascendancy of the renminbi and the decline of traditional systems that have supported dollar hegemony such as petrocurrency mercantilism. While it’s unclear exactly how ambitious Beijing hopes to be in terms of turning the Spratlys into a military outpost, China’s bold development efforts underscore the degree to which the country isn’t timid when it comes to advancing its interests in the face of Western admonition.