09/16/2015, 00.00
CHINA - ASIA - UNITED STATES
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China Sea: Beijing ready to build a third runway on disputed islands

Satellite images taken in early September reveal construction. Recently, the Chinese government had promised it would stop the "expansion". The new runway can accommodate military aircraft and strengthen patrols of the area. New elements of tension with Washington a week ahead of Xi Jinping’s official visit to the US.

Beijing (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Beijing has made further progress in the construction of a third runway on an atoll in the South China Sea, in an area at the center of a bitter territorial dispute. This is shown by new satellite images taken just one month after the government’s announcement that it had stopped expansionist steps to the detriment of Vietnam and the Philippines. The photos date back to the beginning of September and show a building on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, all similar to those already built by China in Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef.

According to reports from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the US intelligence center based in Washington, the new runway is of particular concern for the Philippines. In fact, it allows China to install more patrols to control the Reed Bank, where Manila had previously begun exploration for oil and natural gas.

CSIS expert Bonnie Glaser, adds that the activities promoted by Beijing appear to be aimed at the construction of "military" facilities and structures. An airstrip of about 3 thousand meters, makes it possible to accommodate the majority of military aircraft available in China. And, concludes the expert, the installation of equipment and military vehicles could potentially be "a challenge to the freedom of navigation of the air and sea”.

Evidence of China’s continued "imperialist" activities in the Asia-Pacific region could exacerbate relations between Beijing and Washington just days ahead of the official visit by President Xi Jinping to the United States. Territorial claims, in fact, will be one of the hot topics at the center of talks between the two delegations.

According to experts, China aims to "send a message" to President Barack Obama demonstrating its determination to pursue its interests in the seas even if it means "tension" with the US. Moreover, the Chinese Foreign Ministry continues to assert its "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly and the right to build military installations there.

In recent years, Vietnam and the Philippines - which has taken its case to a UN court - have shown growing concern over China's "imperialism" in the South and East China Seas. The Chinese government claims most of the sea (almost 85 per cent), including sovereignty over the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, in opposition to Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. For the United States, which backs the claims of Southeast Asia nations, Beijing's so-called 'cow tongue' line is both "illegal" and "irrational".  

Anyone with a hegemonic sway over the region would have a strategic advantage, in terms of seabed (oil and gas) development, but also in trade since two thirds of the world's maritime trade transit through it.  Almost uninhabited, the area's islands are thought to hold extensive oil and natural gas reserves as well as other raw materials.

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