Manila (AsiaNews / Agencies) - China has made further progress in the construction of an airstrip on an atoll in the South China Sea, in an area at the center of a bitter territorial dispute. This has been revealed by satellite images recently published by Jane's Defence Weekly, a magazine devoted to issues and military technologies, published by Jane's Information Group (IHS).
The shots show construction work on a portion of dry land on the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. The new line is able to accommodate a runway over 3 thousand meters long for aircraft and it is possible that it may have military purposes. A prospect that worries the governments of the Asia-Pacific and, in particular, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The latest images, taken on March 23, confirm the growing Chinese activities in different parts of the Spratly Islands. According to Beijing this is legitimate and the operations are aimed at protecting - even militarily - its territorial sovereignty. The work currently focuses on the Fiery Cross Reef, where a runway is being built. Other sections are in the design phase and construction sites are already under way. Dredging is also taking place south of the reef, to strengthen the existing port facilities.
Data collection also shows that China could build a second strip of land on Subi Reef, also in the Spratly, just 25 km from an island that is part of the Philippine archipelago and inhabited by civilians.
US President Barack Obama has recently addressed the growing tensions in the area, saying that Beijing is flexing its muscles at other nations of the area. US State Department sources add that the demand for large areas of land in order to build military bases, does not contribute "to the desire for peace and stability in the region." However, China insists that is operating within its territorial rights and sovereignty, as reiterated in an editorial published on Xinhua, the official state news agency.
In recent days, AsiaNews published a lengthy analysis by the Bush School of Government and Public Service, which reveals the propaganda and strategies used by China to justify their claims, while often hiding the facts. Within the report there are some satellite images, which show that China is claiming lands that, in reality, are the exclusive domain of the Philippines.
The Philippines – which is seeking a non-binding international ruling at the UN court – together with Vietnam, is increasingly worried about Beijing's imperialism in the South China 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. In recent months, China has used various political, economic and diplomatic means to hamper non-Chinese vessels from fishing or moving through the disputed waters.
For the United States, which backs the claims of Southeast Asia nations, Beijing's so-called 'cow tongue' line – which covers 80% of the 3.5 km2 - 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.