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Small China islets in South China Sea show signs of new construction

China's military base on Woody Island in the South China Sea. (Google Maps/Released)
November 09, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Although they receive less attention than China’s biggest artificial islands, construction continues apace on its smaller outposts built atop tiny islets in the South China Sea, satellite imagery shows.

The work pales in comparison to the binge in Chinese land reclamation and construction between 2014 and 2017, when Beijing established its major bases on disputed features in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes.

But the imagery reviewed by RFA of several small land features over the past six months shows signs of new housing, power supplies, cultivation and potentially a helipad.

Here’s a look at three locations, where the construction suggests China is trying to solve persistent problems faced by some of its smallest holdings in the South China Sea: access, sustainability, and soil erosion.

Drummond Island: Paving the Way for a Helipad?

At Drummond Island in the Paracel chain, where currently boats have to thread their way through a canal-like trench to reach the dock, a helipad appears to be being built.

Bigger outposts like Woody Island – China’s main base in the Paracels, which is just under two square miles — have airfields where transport planes and fighter jets can land. That’s not feasible on islets as tiny as Drummond, which covers just one-tenth of one square mile.

But a helipad is possible. And satellite imagery shows a paved area of roughly 70,000 square feet has been laid since May.

China occupies virtually every rock and sandbar in the Paracel archipelago, a grouping of land features in the northern half of the South China Sea that is claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Woody Island is China’s largest human settlement in the archipelago and regularly hosts warships from the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the China Coast Guard.

Other outposts in the Paracels are not nearly so large – the other 16 features China occupies have less than one square mile of land to build on.

Many are situated within shallow reefs or shoals that boats above a certain size simply can’t get through, ruling out most of the Chinese navy from docking in their harbor. Drummond Island, for example, has an extremely thin, curved canal cutting through its shoal that connects its northeastern tip to the open ocean. Small boats can be seen occasionally sailing through it.

In the image below, in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it moment,’ a small boat is leaving Drummond’s tiny jetty on its northeastern tip. A floating platform previously identified as a research station is also visible in the northwest.

China has modestly improved Drummond’s harbor since 2017 by adding new piers and seawalls. But China may be looking for other ways to access it, and make the tiny islet more livable for researchers and soldiers garrisoned there. Satellite imagery from Drummond shows that starting on May 20, a swathe of land was cleared just west of its harbor, and is still under construction. Right now, the square-shaped area appears to be in the process of being paved. Several structures have been built at the clearing’s western edge, and the foundations for more appear to have been laid. As of Oct. 3, construction was ongoing.

Helicopters can take off from numerous ships in service with the China Coast Guard, China Rescue Service, and People’s Liberation Army Navy, and have been used in the South China Sea before for medical evacuations and to resupply garrisons on isolated outposts.

China does operate its military and maritime law enforcement agencies out of Drummond. Chinese state-media outlet Xinhua reported on Aug. 16 that the China Coast Guard (CCG) in conjunction with marine police assigned to China’s settlement on Woody Island set out from Drummond to arrest some fishermen for working illegally in the Paracels.

Tree Island: More Housing, More Farming

One precondition under international law for an islet to qualify as an island is human habitation. Drummond looks to be shaping up to host a larger settlement, although official figures of current residents are not published.

Elsewhere in the Paracels is Tree Island, which provides a template for what China’s smaller settlements in the South China Sea can look like.

It lies nine nautical miles north of Woody Island. Although there’s little land to build on – it’s no bigger than Drummond – it boasts a much larger harbor, a helipad, solar panels, wind turbines, and a fully-functioning farm.

Tree Island regularly hosts ships of the China Coast Guard and occasionally supply ships in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy, so China may be bolstering its outpost there. Satellite imagery shows there have been visible improvements made between April 21 and Oct. 7 to support more habitation and farming.

A strip of land has been cleared next to a housing development northeast of the harbor, and one building has already been laid down that looks to be the first in a new row of houses or storage facilities. The farm area just north of the harbor looks more lush than before. Then north of that, what appears to be a wind turbine seen disassembled near a field of solar panels on April 21 is standing upright on Oct. 7.

The biggest area of development is right next to the harbor, in a triangle-shaped spot of land where temporary housing has slowly been replaced by more permanent structures throughout the summer. The greening of that patch over the past six months shows the progress of sand-to-soil practices, such as land reclamation, bringing soil from elsewhere to the area, or literally breaking sand down into soil using chemical compounds. The area is still unfinished, though.

West Sand: Planting Trees To Prevent Soil Erosion

West Sand, a sandbar far northeast of Drummond Island, illustrates another less-noticed way China is building up the tiny islets it occupies in the South China Sea — by planting trees.

West Sand is about a tenth of a square mile, and aside from a central building and what looks to be a desalination pump, lacks any other sort of infrastructure.

Between May 14 and Oct. 6, a network of trees sprang up there. The islet is now notably greener, and the grid-like way the trees are arranged shows they weren’t naturally occurring. Photos from a South China Sea-watching hobbyist forum in September also show multiple species of plants and trees being grown.

China has experimented with ways to make its islets more sustainable. In addition to lacking food or fresh water, some of these islets are barely above sea level and are composed entirely of sand, making them vulnerable to wind and wave erosion or natural disasters such as typhoons. China introduced a novel sand-to-soil method to Woody Island in May, which Radio Free Asia has reported on, that could enable islets to grow their own plant-life eventually. That was about the same time that West Sand started looking greener on satellite imagery.

One of the conditions for a land feature to be considered an island that generates its own territorial waters and economic rights under international law is its ability to generate its own sustainable food supply. That may also help explain why China would want to grow more plant-life on such islets.

There is another reason China is planting trees on West Sand, though. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences published an article in mid-October expressing alarm over the growth of plant-eating pests among islets in the Paracels, including Drummond and Duncan Island. The problem, they wrote, was that these pests threatened critical trees planted on those islands that prevented sand and soil erosion. If left unchecked, the islets would lose the plant-life that anchors them, and eventually waste away.

The article notes that experimentations with soil-erosion preventing trees are ongoing in the Paracels, and names several species of the plants keeping the islets from washing away, which might be threatened by insects. It also expresses concern over how any more infrastructure built on small rocks and sandbars in the Paracels may have to stop if there’s no way to firm up the earth they’re being built on.