China appears to have been expanding naval bases positioned near the contested and strategically important South China Sea, according to new satellite images. The new expansions appear to configure the two bases to support an aircraft carrier and carrier-launched aircraft.
New satellite images obtained by the private satellite intelligence firm ShadowBreak Intl. and reported by USNI News, appear to show new drydocks for warships at a Chinese naval base at Sanya, located in Hainan, and expanded hangar facilities at an airbase just a few miles further along the Hainan coastline.
“Looks like PLAN is expanding its airbase at Sanya, Hainan,” a Twitter user posted, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The tweet included images purporting to show new hangar space and repair stations near a runway on the Chinese navy base.
While Hainan is a Chinese province, it is positioned along the edge of the South China Sea, where China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines hold competing territorial claims. In August, the U.S. formally rejected Chinese territorial claims in the contested region and the U.S. Navy has repeatedly sailed freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) throughout the South China Sea.
According to USNI’s analysis of ShadowBreak’s images, the Sanya naval has room to dry dock a warship and potentially China’s forthcoming third aircraft carrier. A nearby PLAN airbase also shows signs of new improvements.
USNI reported the new hangar and aircraft repair facilities may be part of an overall effort to base an aircraft carrier at the strategically located Chinese naval base. Long-range uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs) have previously been observed at Sanya, further suggesting its potential role as a staging point for Chinese naval air support in the region. China’s new aircraft carrier, which will reportedly have an advanced catapult aircraft launch system, is expected to be able to launch heavier aircraft, including carrier-based early warning aircraft, advanced Chinese fighter jets and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs)
In February, another Twitter user tweeted, “Satellite images from #Sanya AirBase in #Hainan adjacent to #Yulin Naval HQ show the presence of a possible new WingLoong UAV unit onsite in December 2019 with the earlier noted BZK-005 #China#SouthChinaSea#Surveillance CC @sbreakintl#Imint.”
While the future intended purposes of the base are not confirmed, USNI reported Chinese Navy Harbin Z-9 helicopters took off from Sanya in a recent set of live-fire Chinese naval drills, where they fired anti-ship missiles at simulated targets.
In addition to the Sanya base, which is located on Chinese territory, China has increasingly built artificial islands in the contested South China Sea, and have increasingly militarized those artificial islands.
China has also steadily increased its Navy in recent years, overtaking the U.S. for the largest naval fleet in 2019 and expanding its lead in 2020. China also appears set to overtake the U.S. with a larger submarine fleet by 2030.