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Report: China is now flying military planes from disputed South China Sea islands

People's Liberation Army Air Force Xian HY-6 at Zhuhai Airshow. (Li Pang/Wikimedia Commons)
July 14, 2021

Newly obtained satellite images described Tuesday reportedly show China has deployed military aircraft to two disputed South China Sea islands and indicate that the Chinese military has established regular air operations there.

Washington Times obtained satellite images from former Navy intelligence officer J. Michael Dahm of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and reported Tuesday that the images show Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft at the Mischief Reef in Spratly Islands in May and June, and the Subi Reef in June and July.

The images reportedly show PLA KJ-500 airborne warning and control planes, Y-9 transport planes, and Z-8 helicopters. The presence is a sharp increase, as Chinese military aircraft have made only occasional stops on the islands since 2013.

“The most significant change in military posture in 2021 is the appearance of Chinese special mission aircraft and helicopters at Subi and Mischief Reefs, indicating the PLA may have commenced routine air operations from those airfields,” Dahm told Washington Times.

Dahm also published a research report in March that identified that China is holding anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and land-attack missiles at Mischief, Subi, and Fiery Cross Reefs. All three are among the seven island reefs China claims as its own and has been militarizing in recent years.

The missiles “will likely be employed to cover and defend Chinese naval forces, giving them the ability to project military power deep into the South China Sea and Southeast Asia,” Dahm explained.

China established 9,000-foot runways on the three islands to accommodate any aircraft in its fleet, including its nuclear-capable H-6 bombers.

“The island-reefs fill critical gaps in PLA navy capabilities in the South China Sea, especially in terms of reconnaissance and air power, until China’s aircraft carrier program matures,” Dahm said.

The U.S. has repeatedly denounced China’s militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea, as well as its construction of military bases and other industrial facilities in the region, and aggressive behavior toward other nations’ ships in the region.

China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the maritime region. The United States has vowed to continue its freedom of navigation operations to ensure free passage in the South China Sea despite China’s threats.

In July 2020, the U.S. released its first official statement rejecting most China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as “unlawful.”

The document rejects China’s claims to certain territories, such as James Shoal, located 50 nautical miles from Malaysia, as well as other specific territories off the coasts of Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. China has claimed some of these territories in its “Nine-Dashed Line” claim announced in 2009, despite these territories being located up to 1,000 nautical miles away from China’s coast.

The U.S. does recognize China’s claim to the Spratly Island, but rejects any claim China makes beyond a 12-nautical mile limit of the Spratly Islands.

The U.S. position aligns with a 2016 Arbitral Tribunal decision, in which it rejected China’s claims as baseless against international law. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the decision on its fifth anniversary on Monday, which China swiftly denounced.