China appears to be building airstrip on disputed South China Sea island

UniqueThis 57 August 17, 2023

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Satellite images of Triton Island, an island in the Paracel group that is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, suggest construction of a runway almost 2,000 feet long, analysts say.
China appears to be constructing an airstrip on a disputed South China Sea island that is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
This satellite photo from Aug. 15 reveals development on Triton Island in the South China Sea. Planet Labs PBC / AP
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By Larissa Gao and Riley Zhang

HONG KONG — China appears to be building an airstrip on a disputed island that is also claimed by two of its neighbors, adding to tensions with the United States and others in the South China Sea.

Satellite images of Triton Island — one of the major islands in the Paracel group, and also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan — suggest construction of a runway almost 2,000 feet long, according to analysts.

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 on 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. 

“It certainly shows the beginnings of an airfield being constructed on an island,” said Raymond Powell, who studies China’s maritime strategy at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

Powell, who did tours in the Philippines and Vietnam during more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, said the runway would most likely be used for “the delivery of supplies by short-field transports, but probably patrol aircraft, either manned or unmanned.”

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.

Satellite images captured on Aug. 15 reveal what appears to be a runway on the island. Planet Labs PBC / AP
Shipping containers and a helipad have also emerged on the island, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.Planet Labs PBC / AP

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 it is protecting its sovereignty and maritime interests and that “close-in reconnaissance” by American planes and warships threatens its national security and undermines regional peace and stability.

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.

Powell said the construction there “will clearly make Vietnam agitated.”

“It is the closest of the Paracel Islands to the coastline of Vietnam,” he said. “It is China building on an island Vietnam claims — they will see it as one more threat to Vietnam’s security.”

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!”

China has not provided any information about construction on the island. 

Triton Island in the disputed South China Sea, as captured by satellite imagery in August.
Triton Island in the disputed South China Sea, as captured by satellite imagery in August. Planet Labs PBC

Tensions over the South China Sea have escalated in recent months. Earlier this month, the Philippines, a U.S. ally, accused China of “dangerous” and “illegal” behavior in the South China Sea, including firing water cannon at its vessels. The U.S. 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 construction of the airstrip could accelerate U.S. efforts to upgrade its relationship with Vietnam to a “strategic partnership” or higher. President Joe Biden said this month that he would be traveling to Vietnam “shortly.”

“If Vietnam is indeed contemplating that,” Powell said, “having additional threats from China could probably inspire them to go ahead and make that move.”

Larissa Gao
Riley Zhang
The Associated Press contributed.