A tropical coral reef has been transformed by the Chinese military into a base that could host a 3,000-meter long airstrip and naval port, ready to push Beijing's territorial claim over the South China Sea.
Fiery Cross Reef, where China has constructed its new artificial island, lies in the Spratly Islands, a chain of 750 atolls and reefs. Four other countries also claim territorial rights over the area: Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei
China is the furthest away, but has pushed its claim by transforming the small tropical reef into the perfect staging ground for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the South China Sea.
In the space of three months China has turned the reef into an island by dredging soil and sand from the seabed and dumping it on top.
Security journal IHS Janes published an analysis of satellite photos of the installation over the weekend and believes the harbor is "large enough to receive tankers and major surface combatants."
The facility is already believed to be the home to a greenhouse, a wharf, a helipad, and coastal artillery. Images released by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense also show PLA marines in residence, coastal artillery, and a DP-65 anti-diver grenade launcher on the wharf.
The project's size and shape bears a striking resemblance to CGI images used by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation in promotional material, that was obtained by IHS Janes earlier this year.
The report says that China has been the only country involved in the dispute over the Spratly Islands that hasn't been able to secure an island with an air strip in the area, and that the development will level the playing field. But it added that the move "is likely to cause alarm among the other claimants. China has previously shown it is willing to spend blood and treasure to assert its territorial claims in this region."
With construction still underway, Andrew E. Erickson, Associate Professor at the US Naval War College, and Austin Strange of Harvard University wrote in July that the facility could eventually be twice as big as the US base at Diego Garcia, a British territory in the Indian Ocean. But according to their analysis the bigger concern to China's neighbors is that "it could become a command-and-control center for the Chinese navy and might anchor a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) similar to the one it announced over the East China Sea in 2013."
An ADIZ is an area in which a country declares the need to control air traffic for security reasons although it lies outside of its usual airspace.
The declaration of an ADIZ in the East China Sea put the world on tenterhooks in November 2013 as China and Japan entered into a contest of brinkmanship, sending naval vessels and aircraft into the disputed zone and locking weapons systems onto one another.
It was so serious that the director of intelligence and information operations for the US Pacific Fleet, Captain James Fanell, said in February of this year that his office concluded that "the PLA has been given the new task to be able to conduct a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea."
Fanell was reportedly reassigned by the US Navy because of his comments.
Critics have consistently warned that China could be planning to declare a similar ADIZ over the South China Sea, but the Chinese have always rejected those allegations.
"In a general view, the Chinese side has yet to feel any air security threat from the ASEAN countries," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said, referring to the Association of South-East Asia Nations.
China's South East Asian neighbors may be more concerned than relieved about that, as Beijing expands its capabilities on their doorstep.
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