The strategically important South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest trade routes, has emerged as an increasing flashpoint between Washington and Beijing, playing host to a sprawling set of incidents as tensions between the two superpowers have risen in recent years.
The satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC, taken Feb. 20 and Aug. 15, respectively, appear to show construction similar to what China has done on seven other artificial islands in the Spratly group to the east, which were equipped with complete airstrips and other military devices, according to The Associated Press.
The construction on Triton Island appears to be less extensive, however, as there are many blank spaces covered with greenery and sand.
The runway there would be long enough to accommodate small aircraft and drones but not bombers or fighter jets, the AP reported.
“The imagery shows either a runway or a road extending to the east from the developed area,” said Raymond Powell, who studies China’s maritime strategy at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.
“Regardless of which it turns out to be, it’s a clear indication that China intends to make significant upgrades to its military outpost at Triton Island,” said Powell, who revised an earlier assessment that the images definitely showed the beginnings of an airfield under construction.
Enhancing its facilities on Triton Island would greatly help China control the overall Paracel group, said Hu Bo, director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative in Beijing. He also said it was too soon to say what exactly had been built.
“The imagery is quite clear,” Hu said, “but since the construction is not completed yet, we can’t be sure they are airstrips.”
The satellite images were first reported on by news website The Drive.
China, which by some measures has the world’s largest navy, claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea despite a landmark 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that its claims have no legal basis. Its stance has antagonized a number of countries in the region with which it has territorial disputes.
The U.S. and many of China’s neighbors accuse Beijing of using “gray zone” tactics that are not legally acts of war to intimidate other countries and assert greater control over the area. In response, the U.S. regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” and other operations in international waters and airspace.
China says that it is protecting its sovereignty and maritime interests and that “close-in reconnaissance” by U.S. planes and warships threatens its national security and undermines regional peace and stability.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Friday that reports about the Triton Island construction were “inconsistent with the facts.”
“China’s construction activities on our own territory are legitimate and lawful, and beyond reproach,” ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular briefing in Beijing.
Triton Island, which China has controlled since 1974, is the westernmost and southernmost point of the Paracels, almost the same distance from the Vietnamese coast and China’s island province of Hainan.
The satellite images show vehicle tracks across almost all areas of the island, as well as what appear to be containers and construction equipment. They also show a small harbor, a helipad and buildings that were already there.
The latest image also clearly features a star from China’s flag and a hammer and sickle, a symbol of China’s ruling Communist Party, on two fields with a slogan on the ground nearby that reads “The Party shines brightly! Long live the motherland!”
Tensions over the South China Sea have escalated in recent months. The Philippines, a U.S. ally, accused China this month of “dangerous” and “illegal” behavior in the South China Sea, including firing water cannon at its vessels. The State Department criticized China’s actions as threatening regional peace and stability.
The U.S. and China have also had recent military encounters in the South China Sea. In March, Washington rejected Beijing’s claim that a U.S. warship had illegally entered the disputed waters, saying it was conducting routine operations.
Powell said China’s latest building activity on Triton Island could agitate Vietnam and push it closer to the U.S., which is considering upgrading its relationship with Vietnam to a “strategic partnership” or higher. President Joe Biden said this month that he would travel to Vietnam “shortly.”
“Any construction certainly still has that potential, though probably less so should it not prove to be an airfield,” Powell said.
“It will also further serve to validate Vietnam’s decision to carry out its ongoing improvements at its own Spratly Island outposts,” he added.