China has built aircraft hangars that appear to be for military aircraft on some of the contested reefs in the South China Sea, satellite images suggest.
While there is currently no evidence the islands are being used as a military garrison, the number of hangars seen in recent satellite images point to military intentions, said Gregory Polin, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“There is no believable explanation for how or why China would want to deploy over 80 civilian aircraft to these three tiny spits of land. The only reasonable explanation is that each will be prepared to host a full regiment of 24 fighter jets in addition to larger military aircraft,” he said.
The South China Sea, reaching from the Taiwan Strait to Singapore, is a major international shipping zone and is know to be resource rich. The Spratly Islands, called the Nanshan Islands in China, are one of several reefs central to a longstanding territorial dispute over the area between the countries in the region, including China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
An international court recently ruled against China’s claim to the vast majority of the territory in an arbitration brought to it by the Philippines. China has called the court’s decision “null and void with no binding force”, according to the official state news service Xinhua.
As a reaction to the court ruling, the Chinese air force said it will start conducting regular air combat patrols over the area.
Construction of the hangars started before the court ruling against China and appears to have sped up since, said Poling, although it is impossible to say if this was because of the ruling.
China has already built functioning runways on the three reefs in question. CSIS said when all the new hangars are complete the reefs will have space for 24 fighter jets and three to four larger planes each.
The larger hangars are big enough to accommodate bombers, refuelling tankers and surveillance aircraft, according to CSIS.
The images come from commercial satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe and are analysed by CSIS as frequently as possible, Poling says about once a month.
The Chinese premier Xi Jinping has previously said the country does not intend to pursue the militarisation of the islands, and the Chinese government has repeatedly said it will uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
☛ Want to stay up to date with the news? Sign up to our daily bulletin.