New satellite images show China has rapidly expanded several artificial islands it is building atop disputed reefs in the South China Sea, raising fresh concerns across the region and in Washington about Beijing's intentions.
Dredging and sand reclamation over the last year at Hughes Reef, a shoal in the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by five nations, has created a 90,000-square-yard island with two piers, a helicopter pad and what appears to be an anti-aircraft tower or radar facility, according to HIS Jane's, a defense research company.
A satellite photo taken in March showed only a small concrete platform jutting above the reef at high tide. Another photo of the same area, taken in late January, shows an inhabited island bustling with construction projects.
As The Times reported on Jan. 28, U.S. officials worry that the buildup indicates a Chinese push to establish de facto control over resource-rich waters and islets also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam. Washington has urged China and the five other nations to resolve the territorial dispute peacefully.
Artificial islands also have grown substantially over the last year at Gaven Reef, South Johnson reef and Fiery Cross Reef, other outcroppings in the Spratly Islands occupied by China, according to Jane's and a new report by a policy group that follows Asia maritime issues
At Fiery Cross Reef, Chinese dredgers created a land mass that "spans the entire existing reef and is approximately 3,000 meters long and 200-300 meters wide," according to a Feb. 18 report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
Several other countries have built small military outposts on parts of the Spratly Islands, but they are dwarfed by the Chinese construction.
Taiwan has stepped up construction at Itu Aba, the only island it occupies in the South China Sea.
Taiwan is expanding the port to accommodate frigates and coast guard cutters and improving a 1,200 meter runway that is mostly used by C-130 cargo planes, the report said.