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China has spent years building military outposts on a group of contested islands in the South China Sea — a project that has left the country at odds with many of its neighbors and the US.
First, there was the dredging, in which ships sucked sediment from the seabed and pumped it atop formerly barren reefs. Then came the buildings — once said to be for civilian purposes but which analysts now say are small military installations — followed quickly by international uproar.
But the building continued. Now, some of the islands part of the group known as the Spratlys, where China began large-scale development in 2013, have been transfor med from barren reefs into military outposts, as seen for the first time in great detail in a series of new photos.
The images, obtained by The Philippine Daily Inquirer from an unnamed source, offer the clearest views yet of the scale of construction and the nature of military development. The Pentagon and Philippine military both declined to comment on the images. The New York Times has been unable to independently verify these photos, which were released with annotations that indicate they were taken between June 2016 and December 2017.
But South China Sea experts say the photos are consistent with satellite imagery of the development they have been monitoring for years.
Conor Cronin, a research associate at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the buildings in the new images were at the same scale as the structures in the photographs his group regularly assesses from the region. What’s striking about these images, he said, is that for the first time, significant surfacelevel details can be seen.
“These are kind of rare shots to see publicly,” he said. “It’s another indication of how well established these facilities are and kind of the capabilities they are going to have.”
The development of the Spratlys has ignited outrage from neighbors that also lay claim to the islands. To varying degrees, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia all stake claim to its parts. While tensions have eased somewhat as China negotiates an agreement with other players on a code of conduct for the region, the unabated pace of construction could stir fresh tensions.
On Mischief Reef, once largely underwater, 1,379 acres have been developed by China. The latest images from the island purportedly show a nearly two-mile runway and concrete building. “They are going to begin to operate out of these runways and, I believe, start to actually store these aircraft, at least short term, in these hardened shelters,” said an expert.
While negotiations over a code of conduct for development in the sea with the 10-country ASEAN have stalled, China’s development continues. “While they take forever to put this agreement together, China has not slowed in building up these bases,” Mr. Cronin said. “They are continuing apace.”