MANILA, Philippines (Updated) – China’s suspected second airstrip in the disputed Kalayaan Group of Islands (Spratly Islands) is causing alarm among Filipino residents of nearby Pag-asa (Tithu) Island.
“It’s alarming in the sense that we have a pending case. We are not used to seeing an unfriendly force very near us,” Kalayaan town mayor Eugenio Bito-onon told Rappler.
Foreign think tanks have raised concern over satellite photos showing the massive reclamation of Zamora (Subi) Reef, which is located only 25 kilometers from Pag-asa. (IN PHOTOS: Artificial China island can fit 3-km runway)
“That is very alaming if that is true,” said Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Wednesday, August 5, although he said they still have no information on the reported airstrip.
A runway will allow Beijing’s air assets to be present in the area already dominated by its ships.
Pag-asa is occupied by about a hundred Filipinos, who can see with their naked eye the tall cranes on Subi Reef. They spoke of “twinkling” light from the nearby reef visible at night. (READ: Residents of Pag-asa: Life on a disputed island)
“A straight segment of reef that China has filled in with sand can easily accommodate a runway more than 3 kilometers long,” said analyst Victor Robert Lee in an article on Medium.
It’s supposedly 3,000 meters long or more than twice the length of the runway on Pag-asa Island.(READ: PH runway in Spratly erodes as China reclaims to build own)
Washington-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also released satellite photos showing the massive reclamation of Subi Reef.
Bito-onon said they believe China is not yet done with its construction activities on Subi Reef. “We’re expecting more vertical structures onece the soil is already stable,” Bito-onon said.
China is already building a runway of similar length – 3,000-meter (9,842 feet) – on Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reef. It could ultimately be used for combat operations, according to CSIS. (READ: ‘China to finish construction of airstrip in West PH Sea this year’)
“A Chinese airbase at Fiery Cross Reef would allow for much-improved situational awareness,” CSIS said in its website. It could let China deploy maritime surveillance aircraft and fighter squadrons in the area, it added.
“China may be more readily able to use the airbase for patrols or limited offensive operations against other South China Sea claimants, or even United States assets,” it said.
Airstrip building in the Spratly islands goes back nearly 40 years. Four other claimants already have such facilities, according to CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
But China has been accused of seeking to advance its sovereignty claims with its land reclamation program and tensions have been rising in the South China Sea.
Taiwan is currently upgrading its 1,195 metre airstrip on Itu Aba island, CSIS said.
According to the website, Malaysia has the second-longest runway in the area on Swallow Reef at 1,368 meters. The Philippines’ strip is slightly shorter but with an “extremely worn” dirt surface.
Vietnam, the first runway builder in the region in 1976, has the smallest at just 550 meters.
Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are all members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, as is Brunei, another claimant to the waters.
Apprehension has grown over the militarization of the South China Sea, nearly all of which is claimed by Beijing.
China is pouring massive amounts of sand to expand and fortify small reefs and build facilities which it says are meant to promote maritime and navigational safety and scientific research, as well as military purposes.
Washington has a network of military bases in Asia and conducts active reconnaissance of the area, and has been particularly critical of Beijing’s activities, though it has also called on other claimants to cease new construction.
“The US side disregards and distorts the facts, and plays up ‘China’s military threat’ to sow discord between China and China’s maritime neighbors in the South China Sea,” Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said at a recent monthly briefing.
“We firmly oppose such actions.”
China’s island-building and construction activities are expected to come under scrutiny during high-level Asian security meetings hosted by ASEAN on Tuesday, which top US and Chinese diplomats will also attend. (READ: South China Sea tensions flare at Asia security talks)
China’s navy last week carried out a “live firing drill” in the South China Sea, involving at least 100 naval vessels, dozens of aircraft, missile launch battalions and information warfare troops, state media reported. – with reports from Agence France Presse/Rappler