What, exactly, is China constructing in the disputed Spratly Islands, where heavy-duty construction, ocean dredging, and the possible foundation for an airstrip have been reported for months?
The BBC took a shot this week after traveling through the disputed seas, reporting that China “seems to be preparing to build an air base with a concrete runway long enough for fighter jets to take off and land” near the Johnson Reef, also known as the Mabini. China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about the construction.
But a more decisive answer came today, in the form of an op-ed that ran in both the Chinese state-run People’s Daily and the state-sanctioned tabloid the Global Times. Yes, China is installing an airbase in the South China Sea, it seems to confirm, without actually using the word “yes.”
“China is in urgent need of ‘an airbase’ in the Nansha Islands [China’s name for the Spratly’s] to cope with the complicated scenario,” the op-ed states. Vietnam and the Philippines have “virtually pushed China into a corner,” it says, because of their citizens’ migration to disputed islands, and their own construction. It adds a warning note: “Any notion of defying Beijing’s sovereignty over the Nansha Islands or underestimating its resolve and ability to safeguard this sovereignty, is misplaced in its conception.”
Admitting that it is building an air base in disputed territory is just the latest in a string of increasingly aggressive actions in the area. China claims most of the South China Sea, contrary to a United Nations treaty that defines maritime rights by distance from sovereign land. This summer, China also built a kindergarten on a tiny island in the Paracels range, a less aggressive move than an air base to be sure, but one that is still aimed at bolstering claims of sovereignty there.
The rag-tag outposts settled by small groups of Filipinos and Vietnamese on disputed islands in the South China Sea have been well-documented in recent months. The beached, rusted hulk of a ship, manned by Filipino marines on Ayungin Shoal, is “an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world,” The New York Times declared last October.
Expect the presence of an actual Chinese airbase on a disputed territory in the region to shift that battleground somewhat.