Concrete and Coral – Beijing’s South China Sea Building Boom Fuels Concerns

Satellite photo shows Woody Island
Satellite photo dated March 28, 2018 shows Woody Island. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

By Greg Torode and Simon Scarr

At first glance from above it looks like any clean and neatly planned small town, complete with sports grounds, neat roads and large civic buildings

But the town is on Subi reef in the Spratlys archipelago of the hotly contested South China Sea and, regional security experts believe, could soon be home to China’s first troops based in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

Private sector data analysis reviewed by Reuters shows Subi, some 1,200 km (750 miles) from China’s coast, is now home to nearly 400 individual buildings – far more than other Chinese islands.

Subi could be the future location of hundreds of People’s Liberation Army marines, as well as a possible administrative hub as China cements its claim with a civilian presence, security analysts and diplomatic sources say.


Satellite photo dated April 6, 2018 shows Cuarteron Reef, also known as Calderon Reef
Satellite photo dated April 6, 2018 shows Cuarteron Reef, also known as Calderon Reef. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS


The data from Earthrise Media, a non-profit group supporting independent media with imagery research, was based on surveys of high-resolution images obtained by DigitalGlobe satellites, dating back to when China started dredging reefs in early 2014.

The images show neat rows of basketball courts, parade grounds and a wide variety of buildings, some flanked by radar equipment.


Earthrise founder Dan Hammer said his team’s count included only free-standing, permanent and recognisable structures

“When I look at these pictures I see a standard PLA base on the mainland – it is incredible, right down to the basketball courts,” Singapore-based security analyst Collin Koh said after reviewing the data and images.

“Any deployment of troops will be a huge step, however – and then they will need to secure and sustain them, so the military presence will have to only grow from where it is now.”

Senior Western diplomats describe the placement of troops or jet fighters on the islands as a looming test of international efforts to curb China’s determination to dominate the vital trade waterway.


Satellite photo shows Subi Reef
Satellite photo dated March 20, 2018 shows Subi Reef. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS


Subi is the largest of China’s seven man-made outposts in the Spratlys. The so-called “Big Three” of Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs all share similar infrastructure – including emplacements for missiles, 3km runways, extensive storage facilities and a range of installations that can track satellites, foreign military activity and communications.

Mischief and Fiery Cross each house almost 190 individual buildings and structures, according to the Earthrise analysis. The previously unpublished data details the building count on more than 60 South China Sea features, including those occupied by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines.

While the data shows well developed infrastructure on some on islands such as Vietnam’s Spratly Island, the Philippines’ Thitu Island and Taiwan’s Itu Aba, the scale and development by Beijing dwarfs its rivals.


The number of buildings on Subi makes it similar in size to Woody Island in the Paracels, a Beijing-controlled group much closer to China also claimed by Vietnam

Woody is the base and surveillance post which foreign military attaches say is the headquarters of the military division across the South China Sea, reporting to the PLA’s southern theatre command.

Koh and other analysts said the facilities on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross could each hold a regiment – between 1,500 to 2,400 troops.

China’s precise intentions remain unclear and Chinese experts say much will depend on whether Beijing feels threatened by regional security trends, particularly U.S. activity such as its so-called “freedom of navigation patrols”.

China’s defence ministry did not respond to Reuters questions about the build-up on Subi or what the facilities could be used for.



Beijing has consistently said the facilities on its reclaimed islands are for civilian use and necessary self-defence purposes. China blames Washington for militarising the region with their freedom of navigation patrols.

Ding Duo, a researcher at the Chinese government-backed National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said Beijing needs a military presence in the Spratlys to protect its civilian infrastructure.

“As for how big that presence is depends on the threat assessment China has going forward for the Nansha Islands,” he said, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys.

“The Nansha region faces severe military pressure, especially since Trump took office and increased freedom of navigation patrols. So China has raised its threat assessment.”


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