China has constructed a series of artificial islands in a hotly disputed area of the South China Sea, 660 miles from the mainland and only 210 miles from the Philippines.
In a move likely to reinforce concerns over Beijing’s expanding territorial ambitions in region, the images, released on Thursday, show an artificial island created at Gaven Reefs in the Spratly Islands, which covers 75,000 square yards and boasts a helipad, a cement plant and two piers. Historical pictures on Google show the island took around nine months to build.
Two similar islands have been constructed at Johnson South Reef and Hughes Reef, raising fears that China is building a network of Island fortresses in waters independently claimed by China, Malaysia the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
"Where it used to have a few small concrete platforms, it now has full islands with helipads, airstrips, harbors and facilities to support large numbers of troops," said James Hardy, Asia Pacific Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. "We can see that this is a methodical, well-planned campaign to create a chain of air and sea capable fortresses across the center of the Spratly Islands chain."
Speaking to the WSJ, a senior US official said: “The Chinese have built up a head of steam on the land reclamation in the South China Sea over the course of 2014. If anything, it looks to be accelerating.”
One Western diplomat told Reuters, "These reclamations are bigger and more ambitious than we all thought. On many different levels it's going to be exceptionally difficult to counter China in the South China Sea as this develops."
The expansion into the disputed waters began after President Xi Jinping took power, and has continued apace despite overtures from Washington to halt construction.
The potentially energy rich Spratly Islands are a cluster of reefs lying within an area delineated by Beijing as Chinese territory.