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South China Sea PLAN Bases

The construction of new airfields and hangars on outposts in the South China Sea extends the possible operating areas of PLA aviation forces. Future deployed Chinese combat aircraft operating from Spratly Island outposts could extend their range and/or loiter time over the South China Sea or even reach into the Indian Ocean.

In 2018, China continued its gradual deployment of military jamming equipment as well as advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems to its Spratly Islands outposts. The missile systems are the most capable land-based weapons systems deployed by China in the disputed South China Sea. China completed shore-based infrastructure on four small outposts in the Spratly Islands in early 2016. Facilities on Johnson, Gaven, Hughes, and Cuarteron Reefs include administrative buildings, weapons stations, and sensor emplacements.

Chinas Spratly Islands outpost expansion effort was focused on building out the land-based capabilities of three large outposts Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs after completion of four smaller outposts early in 2016. No substantial land has been reclaimed at any of the outposts since China completed its artificial island creation in the Spratly Islands in late 2015 after adding over 3,200 acres of land to the seven features it occupies in the Spratlys. Construction of aviation facilities, port facilities, fixed-weapons positions, barracks, administration buildings, and communication facilities at each of the three outposts was underway throughout 2017. The outposts may be capable of supporting military operation in the Spratly Islands and throughout the region, but no permanent large-scale air or naval presence has been observed.

China has completed shore-based infrastructure on four small outposts in the Spratly Islands: Johnson, Gaven, Hughes, and Cuarteron Reefs. Administrative buildings, weapons stations, sensor emplacements, and other facilities remain under construction on the outposts.

By early 2018, China had completed more extensive military infrastructure on three larger outposts in the Spratly Islands at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs. These installations included aviation facilities, port facilities, fixed-weapons positions, barracks, administration buildings, and communications facilities.

No substantial land had been reclaimed at any of the outposts since China completed its artificial island creation in the Spratly Islands in late 2015, after adding over 3,200 acres of land to the seven features it occupies in the Spratlys. China has stated these projects are mainly to improve marine research, safety of navigation, and the living and working conditions of personnel stationed on the outposts. However, the outposts provide airfields, berthing areas, and resupply facilities that will allow China to maintain a more flexible and persistent military and paramilitary presence in the area. This improves Chinas ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to China, and reduce the time required to deploy them.

Cuarteron Reef

Cuarteron Reef - 854'N, 11252'E

The July 12, 2016,the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) Arbitration Award determined that Cuarteron Reef are rocks that may be used to claim a territorial sea. Cuarteron Reef is the easternmost of the London Reefs. Several rocks, 1.2 to 1.5m high, lie on the N side of the reef. The shallow lagoon within the reef has no entrance. 1.42 Currents at Cuarteron Reef are apparently diurnal, their rise being 1.8 to 2.1m. The tidal currents along its N side set W during the flood and E during the ebb.

Duncan Island

Duncan Island - 1627'N 11143'E

The Duncan Islands is actually two coral islets joined by a sand spit and surrounded by a coral reef that is steep-to. It lies on the SE horn of the crescent and is separated from Drummond Island to the E by the SE lagoon entrance channel which is deep and about 1.5 miles wide. A rock, with a depth less than 1.8m, lies close SE of the E island. Drummond Island, covered with mangroves and bushes, is 3m high and lies on the SW tip of a continuous reef that extends NE about 4 miles, then curves NW about 4 miles to Observation Bank. Observation Bank constitutes the N extremity of the Crescent Group. It is a sand cay on a reef about 2 miles long oriented in a SE-NW direction. A detached reef extends about 3.2 miles WSW from the N end of the main reef. The area of the lagoon within the bight of this detached reef and the reef stretching NE and NW of Drummond Island is foul.

At Drummond Island in the Paracel chain, where boats have to thread their way through a canal-like trench to reach the dock, a helipad appears to be being built by late 2020. Bigger outposts like Woody Island Chinas main base in the Paracels, which is just under two square miles -- have airfields where transport planes and fighter jets can land. Thats not feasible on islets as tiny as Drummond, which covers just one-tenth of one square mile. But a helipad is possible. And satellite imagery shows a paved area of roughly 70,000 square feet has been laid since May.

China has modestly improved Drummonds harbor since 2017 by adding new piers and seawalls. But China may be looking for other ways to access it, and make the tiny islet more livable for researchers and soldiers garrisoned there. Satellite imagery from Drummond shows that starting on May 20, a swathe of land was cleared just west of its harbor, and is still under construction. Right now, the square-shaped area appears to be in the process of being paved. Several structures have been built at the clearings western edge, and the foundations for more appear to have been laid. As of 03 October 2020, construction was ongoing.

Fiery Cross Reef

Fiery Cross Reef

Fiery Cross Reef - 935'N 11254'E

The July 12, 2016,the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) Arbitration Award determined that Fiery Cross Reef are rocks that may be used to claim a territorial sea. Fiery Cross Reef (North West Investigator Reef) marked by a light, is about 14 miles long NE-SW, steep-to, and composed of coral patches, several of which dry. The largest drying patch is located at the SW end of the reef and supports a prominent rock, 1m high. With the exception of this rock, the reef covers at HW. Breakers occur on Fiery Cross Reef with even a slight swell and make it visible from a distance of several miles. A dangerous wreck lies 4 miles SW of the NW extremity of the reef. Anchorage has been taken about 0.2 mile from the reef, with China is believed to have conducted three test flights at Fiery Cross Reef on January 2, 3, and 6 of 2016. In response, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam expressed strong opposition on January 2, and the Philippines protested in writing on January 8. In Fiery Cross Reef, a large harbor capable of receiving surface combatants was constructed. In January 2016, China declared completion of a 3,000 meter-long runway which fighters and bombers can take off from and land on, and aircraft test flights were conducted willfully against the protests from countries in the area. In April 2016, a Navy patrol aircraft flying over the South China Sea landed at Fiery Cross Reef to evacuate emergency patients.

Commerical satellite images suggest that China had deployed early warning aircraft and anti-submarine aircraft on the Yongshu Reef in the South China Sea amid increased US military activities in the region, as Chinese experts said on 14 May 2020 that China had the right to deploy defensive weapons there according to military threats China is facing. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed the KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system and the KQ-200 maritime patrol aircraft, also known as the Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft, on the permanent base on the Yongshu Reef in the South China Sea, media in the island of Taiwan reported Thursday, citing satellite photos taken by ImageSat International. Previous satellite photos showed aircraft hangars near the airstrip on the reef were installed with air conditioners, indicating military aircraft were ready for extended deployment, reports said.

Gaven Reefs

Gaven Reefs - 1012'N 11413'E

The July 12, 2016,the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) Arbitration Award determined that Gaven Reef (North) are rocks that may be used to claim a territorial sea. Gaven Reefs is comprised of two reefs which cover at HW and lie 7 miles W and 8.5 miles WNW, respectively, of Namyit Island. They are the SW dangers of Tizard Bank. The N of the two reefs is marked by a white sand dune about 2m high. Anchorage can be taken, in 13 to 18m, between Sand Cay and the drying reef to the W. Vessels having local knowledge can anchor in convenient depths within the various passes of Tizard Bank, having due regard for conditions of wind and sea. An ammunition dumping ground lies about 6.7 miles N of Itu Aba Island.

Hughes Reef

McKennan / Hughes Reef / Union Atoll- 95449.26N 1142947.39E

The July 12, 2016,the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) Arbitration Award determined that Hughes Reef are low-tide elevation (LTE), not entitled to a territorial sea and are not subject to appropriation or territorial title by any state. Union Atoll, 70 miles WNW of Alicia Annie Reef, extends in a NE-SW direction and encloses an incompletely examined lagoon about 28 miles long and up to 7.5 miles wide. There are numerous entrances through the reefs and an anchorage lies within. The rim of the atoll contains numerous drying reefs and several small cays. Hughes Reef is a shallow coral reef platform located on the northern side of Union Reefs between Hallet Reef (around 1NM northeast) and Mc Kennan Reef (0.8NM southwest). The overall reef platform extends over 4km along its west-east axis and 2km along its north-south axis. It holds a lagoon that is surrounded by the reef flat on its western side and is surrounded by the reef slope on its eastern side.

Johnson South Reef

Johnson South Reef - 942'N 11417'E.

The July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) Arbitration Award determined that Johnson Reef are rocks that may be used to claim a territorial sea. Johnson Reef, of brown volcanic rock with white coral around the inner rim, is located at the SW end of Union Atoll. Johnson Reef partly encloses a shallow lagoon entered from the NE. The largest rock on the reef is about 1.2m high. Several other rocks show above the water on the SE part of the reef; the remainder of the reef is reported to be covered.

Mischief Reef

Mischief Reef - 955'N 11532'E

The July 12, 2016,the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) Arbitration Award determined that Mischief Reef are low-tide elevation (LTE), not entitled to a territorial sea and are not subject to appropriation or territorial title by any state. Mischief Reef is a circular coral atoll about 4 miles in diameter. The reef, which is awash and has several drying rocks, encloses an extensive lagoon containing an average depth of 26m. The SW part of the lagoon is free of dangers and affords good shelter, but the NE part is encumbered with coral heads with depths of less than 1.8m. Many of these heads are pinnacles, which are difficult to detect even with good lighting conditions. It has been reported that several lighted navigational aids have been added to the reef in various location. There are three entrances to the lagoon along the S and SW sides of the atoll, two of which are boat channels. South Entrance, the westernmost, has a navigable width of 37m and is 300m in length, with depths of over 18.3m. The axis of the deepest water, clearly defined in good light by its deep blue color, lies in a slight curve, approximately parallel to the edge of the reef on the W side commencing in a direction of about 005, then curving N and terminating in a direction of about 354. The reef on the W side is steep-to and on the E side is slightly shelving. Care is necessary since the tidal currents are strong at times, and set nearly across the entrance. At neap tides, a tidal current of 1.5 knots was observed. South Entrance is accessible to vessels under 91m in length. Temporary buoys should be laid at the ends and middle of each side to assist conning. Vessels should enter with good headway keeping slightly W of the center of the deepest water. It was reported (1995) that the area within a 60 mile radius of Mischief Reef has been declared prohibited to all vessels. At Mischief Reefs, in July 2016, China conducted aircraft test fights willfully for two straight days on a runway where large aircraft can take off and land. In January 2018, Y-7 transport aircraft were reported on Mischief Reef. It has been noted that batteries capable of being equipped with anti-aircraft guns, missile shelters, underground facilities which are pointed out to be ammunition storages, are being built on these features. It has also been noted that the construction of this infrastructure has been completed. Additionally, in April 2018, it was reported that anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-surface cruise missiles were present.

North Island

North Island - 1658'N., 11218'E

North Island lies 2 miles ESE of Tree Island across Zappe Pass. A reef extends nearly 0.5 mile NW from North Island and 4 miles SE. Several small buildings stand on the island. To the SE of North Island lie Middle Island, South Island, and South Sand (1656'N., 11220'E.). Anchorage may be taken, in depths of 20 to 29m, SSW of North Island and Middle Island, over a bottom of sand. A depth of 20m lies 3 miles NE of South Sand.

The Paracel Islands are made up of the Amphitrite Group, the Crescent Group, and several off-lying islands and coral reefs lying W of the main Hong Kong-Singapore route. The islets are of low elevation; some are covered with trees or vegetation. Navigation through the area presents little difficulty in fair weather provided a good lookout is kept, preferably high on the mast. Breakers are often visible on many of the reefs and above-water rocks. The use of radar is encouraged as many wrecks lying stranded on the surrounding reefs are radar conspicuous. In poor weather, unless seeking anchorage, the Paracel Islands should be avoided. Currents generally correspond to the prevailing monsoon, but with a light wind, continually change direction over the reefs attaining a rate of 2 knots. Anchorages, though available, are mostly open and offer only slight protection when leeward of the islands.

Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal / Panatag - 1508'N 11745'E.

Scarborough Reef (Scarborough Shoal) consists of a narrow belt of barely submerged reef enclosing a lagoon. On the belt are scattered rocks which are visible at a considerable distance. A score or more of these rocks, standing 1.5 to 2.5m high, are found on the SW corner of the reef with South Rock, the highest of these scattered rocks, on its SE extremity. In 1986, the reef was reported to lie 2 miles N of its charted position. Scarborough Reef Light is shown from the NE side of the reef. Close N of South Rock is a channel about 0.2 mile wide with general depths of 7.3 to 9.2m leading into the lagoon. This channel is encumbered with reef patches as shallow as 2.7m; the lagoon is almost completely filled with subsurface coral heads at about 15m intervals. A radar-conspicuous stranded wreck, used as a bombing target, is located on the SE side of the reef in approximate position 1505'30N, 11750'00E. Fishing vessels frequent the reef. The ruins of an iron tower stand close to the above channel opening. A line of breakers marking the reef has been seen at a distance of 10 miles. Currents in the vicinity of the reef vary with the monsoons, setting NE during the Southwest Monsoon, and in a W or NW direction during the Northeast Monsoon. In recent years, Chinese vessels have allegedly been conducting what are likely to be survey activities in Scarborough Shoal, where a standoff took place between Chinese and Philippine government ships in April 2012. It is pointed out that new land reclamations in the shoal might be seen in the future. It is also pointed out that if China conducts land reclamations and installs radar facilities, runways, and other infrastructure in Scarborough Shoal, it could possibly increase its ability to track the situation and power projection capabilities in the surrounding sea area and ultimately enhance its operational capabilities throughout all the areas of the South China Sea. Attention must continue to be paid to the situation going forward.

Subi Reef

Subi Reef - 1054'N 11406'E

The July 12, 2016,the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) Arbitration Award determined that Subi Reef are low-tide elevation (LTE), not entitled to a territorial sea and are not subject to appropriation or territorial title by any state. Subi Reef is located 14 miles SW of Thitu Island. It dries, surrounds a lagoon, is steep-to, and usually breaks. There is no apparent entrance into the lagoon. it has been reported that there are several lighted navigation aids surrounding the reef, located on several structures.

At Subi Reefs in July 2016, China conducted aircraft test fights willfully for two straight days on a runway where large aircraft can take off and land. Y-8 special mission aircraft were confirmed on Subi Reef in 2018. It has been noted that batteries capable of being equipped with anti-aircraft guns, missile shelters, underground facilities which are pointed out to be ammunition storages, are being built on these features. It has also been noted that the construction of this infrastructure has been completed. Additionally, in April 2018, it was reported that anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-surface cruise missiles were present.

Tree Island

Tree Island

Tree Island - 1657'N 11215'E

One precondition under international law for an islet to qualify as an island is human habitation. Tree Island provides a template for what Chinas smaller settlements in the South China Sea can look like. It lies nine nautical miles north of Woody Island. Although theres little land to build on its no bigger than Drummond it boasts a much larger harbor, a helipad, solar panels, wind turbines, and a fully-functioning farm. Tree Island regularly hosts ships of the China Coast Guard and occasionally supply ships in service with the Peoples Liberation Army Navy, so China may be bolstering its outpost there. Satellite imagery shows there have been visible improvements made in 2020 between April 21 and Oct. 7 to support more habitation and farming.

A strip of land has been cleared next to a housing development northeast of the harbor, and one building has already been laid down that looks to be the first in a new row of houses or storage facilities. The farm area just north of the harbor looks more lush than before. Then north of that, what appears to be a wind turbine seen disassembled near a field of solar panels on April 21 is standing upright on Oct. 7. The biggest area of development is right next to the harbor, in a triangle-shaped spot of land where temporary housing has slowly been replaced by more permanent structures throughout the summer. The greening of that patch over the past six months shows the progress of sand-to-soil practices, such as land reclamation, bringing soil from elsewhere to the area, or literally breaking sand down into soil using chemical compounds. The area is still unfinished, though.

West Sand

West Sand - 1658'N 11212'E

West Sand, a sandbar far northeast of Drummond Island, illustrates a less-noticed way China is building up the tiny islets it occupies in the South China Sea -- by planting trees. West Sand is about a tenth of a square mile, and aside from a central building and what looks to be a desalination pump, lacks any other sort of infrastructure. Between May 14 and Oct. 6, 2020, a network of trees sprang up there. The islet is now notably greener, and the grid-like way the trees are arranged shows they werent naturally occurring. Photos from a South China Sea-watching hobbyist forum in September 2020 also show multiple species of plants and trees being grown.

China has experimented with ways to make its islets more sustainable. In addition to lacking food or fresh water, some of these islets are barely above sea level and are composed entirely of sand, making them vulnerable to wind and wave erosion or natural disasters such as typhoons. China introduced a novel sand-to-soil method to Woody Island in May, which Radio Free Asia has reported on, that could enable islets to grow their own plant-life eventually. That was about the same time that West Sand started looking greener on satellite imagery.

One of the conditions for a land feature to be considered an island that generates its own territorial waters and economic rights under international law is its ability to generate its own sustainable food supply. That may also help explain why China would want to grow more plant-life on such islets.

Woody Island

Woody Island

Woody Island / Yongxing Island / Phu Lam Island - 1650'N 11220'E

Woody Island lies 9 miles SSE of Tree Island in the Amphitrite Group; it is the southernmost and largest of the islands. It is about 1 mile in length, covered with trees, and surrounded by a white sand beach. Guano is shipped from the island. Two mooring buoys lie close N of Woody Island. In the vicinity of the settlement on the island are a square tower, two temples, a meteorological station, and several large buildings. On the S side of the island stands an observation tower and four whip antennas situated about 0.3 mile N of this tower. A light is shown from a white round stone tower with black bands. Landing can be effected on the SW side of Woody Island. This island is connected to Rocky Island to the NE by an overhead cable. There are depths of 14.6m 5 miles SSE of Woody Island. During S winds, anchorage can be taken in a position about 0.5 mile from the reef fringing the N side of Woody Island, in a depth of 24m, sand. In NE winds there is good anchorage about 0.5 mile off the SW shore of Woody Island, in 33 to 37m, sand. China has extended the runway on Woody Island since 2013.

China established a larger army garrison and legislature to govern Yongxing Island, more than 200 miles southeast of Hainan. The goal of that move is to allow Beijing to exercise sovereignty over all land features inside the South China Sea, including more than 40 islands now occupied illegally by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Facing the Pacific Ocean to the south, Yongxing island is the gateway connecting China with Far East and Europe. On November, 24th, 1946, several cannon blasts resounded through the South China Sea. The sounds came from a Chinese warship named "Yongxing". It was a declaration that China was taking back the Xisha islands captured by Japan during World War Two, in accordance with the Cairo Declariation and the Potsdam Proclamation. Modern buildings and coconut trees neatly lined Sansha city's main throughfare, the Beijing road. The current population of Yongxing island is 1,000. And with the city opening up, more people would be willing to work and live there.

The island has "everything", but that only meets people's basic living needs and is far from "abundant" due to the limited natural conditions. While tourists are impressed by the blue sea and ocean, naval vessels and coconut trees on the Yongxing Island, only people who really live on it know what high temperature, high humidity, high salt content and lack of water mean. The island is far from the mainland, so many living necessities have to be transported from the mainland. The ratio between military personnel and civilians on the Yongxing Island is 3:1. The PLA Navy is the biggest contributor to the islands and reefs construction there and also acts as the guardian of South China Sea.

In October 2015 and October 2017, China was reported to deploy J-11 and other fighters, and in February 2016 and January 2017, the existence of equipment likely to be surface-to-air missiles was confirmed. It has been noted that the takeoff and landing training of the H-6K bombers in the South China Sea announced by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense in May 2018 was carried out on Woody Island.

Satellite images taken on 17 April and 25 June 2020 show that China's dredging activities on Phu Lam Island, which belongs to Vietnam's Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, appear to expand. Northwest corner of this artificial island, according to BenarNews news agency. Satellite images show that the dredging appears to have been underway for several weeks on the island of Phu Lam, where China built the city of Tam Sa. Commercial satellite images from April 17 to June 25 show that the coral reef on the northwestern coast of Phu Lam Island has been partially dredged in the center. It is also possible to see new strips of land that could be the foundation for the accretion and expansion of the island. Cranes or heavy machinery can be found at the same location on May 8. Based on the assessment of BenarNews, satellite images showed that the sand was dredged off Phu Lam Island to create this new structure. The coastline near this area has been reinforced with what looks like a sea wall. Some artificial pier-like structures are built at points along the east coast.



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Page last modified: 25-03-2021 11:55:43 ZULU