It’s increasingly clear that China intends to use its artificial islands in the South China Sea for military purposes.
Admiral Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, delivered this assessment on a panel that I was privileged to be part of at the Aspen Security Forum last week. Harris described the newly-created islands as potential ‘forward operating posts‘ for the Chinese military. Beijing hasn’t denied that it will use the outposts for military functions, but it has emphasised plans to provide public goods such as maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation and meteorological observation.
What are the potential military uses of China’s artificial islands and do they pose a threat?
First, the outposts in the Spratly Island chain will undoubtedly be equipped with radars and electronic listening equipment that will enhance China’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and maritime domain awareness capabilities. The newly built 10,000-foot runway on Fiery Cross Reef will accommodate virtually every aircraft in China’s inventory, and hangers are being built that appear designed to host tactical fighter aircraft. As Admiral Harris stated, ‘A 10,000-foot runway is large enough to take a B-52, almost large enough for the Space Shuttle, and 3,000 feet longer than you need to take off a 747.’
China will be able to operate surveillance aircraft, airborne early warning and control aircraft, unmanned aircraft, transport planes, tanker aircraft and fighters. Depending on what platforms and systems are deployed on these outposts, China could have the ability to monitor most, if not all, of the South China Sea on a 24/7 basis.