MANILA, Philippines—A Chinese maritime patrol aircraft has been spotted on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef in the West Philippine Sea early this month, a satellite image showed.
The image of a KQ-200 maritime patrol aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy was captured by ImageSat International (ISI)—a private satellite image provider—on the Chinese-occupied reef in the Spratly Islands last April 10 during a supposed training exercise.
“ISI intelligence report reveals a KQ-200 ASW mission plane, parked on a flight path in Fiery Cross Reef during a training exercise,” ImageSat posted on Twitter on Monday (April 20).
It said the use of this type of aircraft in training meant “practice finding enemy submarines and increasing situational awareness in the maritime arena.”
The ISI said it also captured a “rare documentation” of an active aircraft shelter on the same reef.
“Such a concentration of aircraft can be indicative of widespread exercise in the area,” ISI said.
A Chinese Y-8 military transport aircraft was also captured by ISI on the same reef in March.
An international maritime security expert said this could be the start of China’s escalation of efforts to militarize the highly-contested waters.
“Note Fiery Cross has recently become the site of newly formed Nansha (Spratlys) administration, which alongside the Xisha (Paracels) administration on Woody Island falls under Sansha City,” Singapore-based maritime security expert Collin Koh said on Twitter.
“This heralds the start of more militarization activities,” he said.
Last week, China announced that it had created two new districts, which were akin to local governments, in Spratly Islands and the Paracels.
Kagitingan Reef, where the maritime patrol plane was spotted, would be the base of the new district for the Spratlys.
China in recent years had transformed reefs and islands into outposts fitted and equipped with harbors, airstrips, missile shelters, communications facilities which expanded its ability to monitor its and rivals’ activities in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims to almost entirely own.
The 2016 decision by the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing’s claims have no basis and its South China Sea construction frenzy was illegal.
In another move to assert its territorial claims in the disputed waters, China has also named 80 geographical features in the Spratly Islands and Paracels.
China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of National Resources released the names and maps of 25 islands and reefs as well as 55 undersea geographic entities on Sunday (April 19), state-owned news site Global Times reported.
While the rest of the world is busy with the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing is spreading its presence in the disputed waters to keep a tight grip on the resources-rich maritime area.
Aside from setting up new districts and naming geographical features, it has been announcing its other activities in the South China Sea like putting up research stations and mental health service stations in the disputed waters.
A Chinese government survey ship has been accused of tagging an exploration vessel operated by a Malaysian state oil company near Malaysian waters.
Hanoi filed an official protest against China early this month after a Vietnamese fishing boat was allegedly rammed and sunk by a China Coast Guard ship near the Paracels.