Imagery released earlier this month indicates that China has nearly completed construction of several facilities in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross Reef has hangars, mobile missile shelters, and radar arrays. Mischief and Subi reefs house similar structures. In total, the Spratly Islands can now accommodate 72 combat aircraft and about 15 larger planes including bombers, transporters, and refueling aircraft.
It’s unclear what specific military aircraft may be deployed to the hotly contested region. However, China is sending a strong message to its rival claimants that it intends to hold on to vast swaths of disputed territory. The PRC’s message is clear: We are here to stay. The message is also being heard in Washington, where the new administration of President Donald Trump appears determined to ensure that freedom of navigation is respected.
Tensions in the region appear to have tapered off slightly in the last few weeks. However, the recently completed construction in the Spratlys is likely to cause alarm among policymakers in Washington and other countries with strategic interests in the disputed waters.