China Builds Island Fortress On Disputed Reef

China has built an island fortress on a disputed reef in the South China Sea, satellite images have revealed, raising concerns over the country’s military ambitions in the contested region.

Images depict an artificial island with two piers, a helipad, and a cement plant that has appeared over the past nine months at Hughes Reef, which is located in the Spratly Islands. In addition to China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei have all registered claims to territory in the region, prompting increased tensions between the various nations. The reef is located just 210 miles from the Philippines and 660 miles distant from China.

Construction of the island fortress began last March, and the 380 square meter outpost had expanded to a 75,000 square meter fort by the end of January, connected to a helipad. Similar construction projects are underway on nearby Johnson South Reef and Gaven Reefs.

Images of the island fortress were released by military analysis firm IHS Jane‘s. James Hardy, Asia Pacific Editor of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, observed that once completed, the fortresses will allow China to extend its military range in the region.

“Where it used to have a few small concrete platforms, it now has full islands with helipads, airstrips, harbors and facilities to support large numbers of troops. We can see that this is a methodical, well-planned campaign to create a chain of air and sea capable fortresses across the center of the Spratly Islands chain.”

Though American authorities have repeatedly asked China to halt building activities in the region, the project appears to be accelerating. A senior U.S. official described the construction as “unprecedented,” further observing that China has “built up a head of steam on the land reclamation in the South China Sea over the course of 2014.”

Another Western diplomat noted that the construction project behind China’s island fortresses is far larger in scope than observers first believed.

“On many different levels it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to counter China in the South China Sea as this develops.”

Though other claimants to the Spratly island chain have undertaken reclamation projects in the region, China‘s activities are unique, due to their sheer scope and the fact that Beijing is facilitating dramatic changes to the structure of natural landmasses.

Last May, Chinese ships were accused of attacking Vietnamese vessels in the region surrounding the island fortresses.

[Image via Twitter/ CSIS]