Date
23 March 2017
This image of North Island in the Paracels group taken on March 6 shows recent work including land clearing and possible preparation for a harbor. Photo: Planet Labs/Reuters
This image of North Island in the Paracels group taken on March 6 shows recent work including land clearing and possible preparation for a harbor. Photo: Planet Labs/Reuters

China begins new work on disputed South China Sea island

China has started fresh construction work in the disputed South China Sea, new satellite images show, a sign that Beijing is continuing to strengthen its military reach across the vital trade waterway.

An image of North Island in the Paracels group taken on March 6 shows recent work including land clearing and possible preparation for a harbor to support what experts believe may be eventual military installations, Reuters reports.

Initial work was damaged in a typhoon last year, the news agency said.

The pictures, provided by private satellite firm Planet Labs, follow reports in January showing work undertaken on nearby Tree Island and other features in the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Diplomats briefed on latest Western intelligence assessments say Beijing is pursuing efforts to dominate its maritime “backyard”, even if it tweaks the timing of moves to avoid being overtly provocative.

China has in recent years temporarily based surface-to-air missile launchers and crack jet fighters at long established bases on Woody Island on the Paracels, helping protect its nuclear submarine facilities on Hainan Island.

North Island is part of an arc of reefs that are expected to form a protective screen for Woody, which includes civilian facilities and a listening post.

China’s defense ministry said it was “not familiar” with any work at North Island.

“What needs to be stressed is that the Xisha Islands are China’s inherent territory,” it said, using the Chinese name for the Paracels.

China fully occupied the Paracels in 1974 after forcing the navy of the-then South Vietnam off its holdings.

News of fresh Chinese activity comes as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepares for his first official visit to the region later this week.

Tillerson sparked alarm in Beijing when he said in January China should not be allowed access to islands it has built in the South China Sea.

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was unable to confirm new construction work on North Island but said it would not be surprising.

“It would be in line with what they have been doing, why else would they clearing land on the islands but for militarization?” the official said. “There is no other reason to have a presence there.”

– Contact us at english@hkej.com

RC/CG

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