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Report: China adding new spy planes, expanding air bases near South China Sea

China's new Type 001A aircraft carrier docked in August 2017. (GG001213/Wikimedia Commons)
January 22, 2021

China is continuing to expand its air and naval presence on key military bases at the northern end of the South China Sea, with new expansion efforts spotted this month.

New satellite images captured by the commercial satellite intelligence firm Planet Labs and reported by Defense News appeared to show new Chinese surveillance aircraft at airfields on China’s Lingshui and Qionghai airbases, on China’s Hainan island. Hainan sits on the north end of the South China Sea, whose control is disputed by China and several other nations.

The images obtained by Defense News showed two different aircraft aprons, with eight new aircraft on one and six new aircraft on the other. The aircraft on the aprons include several different variants of China’s Y-9 type turboprop airlift aircraft.

One photo of China’s Lingshui Airbase reportedly showed five KJ-500 airborne early-warning aircraft, which are based on the Y-9 airframe. The same photo showed three more Y-9 aircraft, of an unknown variant. Defense News reported the additional Y-9 aircraft could be regular airlift aircraft or specialized aircraft designed for intelligence gathering aircraft.

Defense News reported that while Qionghai originally began as a primarily civilian airport, the airstrip has been expanded to facilitate Chinese military KQ-200 long-range, anti-submarine and maritime-patrol aircraft, used by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Last month, expanded aircraft and ship drydocking facilities were photographed at the nearby Sanya and Yulin airbases in Hainan. Photos captured by another commercial satellite intelligence firm, ShadowBreak Intl., showed expanded facilities at the Chinese bases, including new airstrips for unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) and dock space to support China’s new aircraft carrier. Photos of expanded hangar spaces were also captured over the Chinese bases.

Defense News reported China has already deployed its two aircraft carriers to Yulin, as well as its first Type 075 helicopter landing dock ship.

The Type 075 vessel serves a similar role to the America and Wasp Class amphibious assault ships used by the U.S. Navy, providing deck space to carry and launch verticle lift aircraft.

The addition of new spaces to support aircraft and aircraft carriers would suggest China is strengthening its naval air power in the South China Sea region.

China’s moves to bolster its military assets along the South China Sea come as the U.S. officially rejected China’s territorial claims to the region last summer. The U.S. has also repeatedly carried out freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea as a check to Chinese territorial claims.