China reportedly building runway on reef near Philippine-claimed gas field
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — China appears to be building an airstrip on a dredged reef near an oil and gas field also claimed by the Philippines, a move that may further inflame international tensions over the South China Sea.
Satellite images taken Sept. 8 show dredging activity and possible runway construction on Mischief Reef, according to recently released images by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Images from Sept. 3 showed runway grading on Subi Reef, about 100 miles northwest of Mischief.
The new runway would give China three runways long enough for military aircraft in the Spratly Islands, whose ownership is contested by several other nations, none of which have anything approaching China’s military strength.
“An airstrip at Mischief would be of particular concern to the Philippines,” wrote Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project sponsored by CSIS. “The potential airfield at Mischief Reef would also be just 60 nautical miles from Reed Bank, where the Philippines hopes to drill for natural (gas) deposits over China’s objections.”
Mischief Reef is about 20 miles from Second Thomas Shoal, which is garrisoned by a small contingent of Philippine forces living on the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting WWII-era hull grounded on the shoal. China’s coast guard patrols the shoal and has attempted to block resupply of the Philippine garrison in recent years.
The U.S. has called for a moratorium on all dredging and island-building in the South China Sea and denied China’s claims over airspace and waters that Washington views as international. President Barack Obama is expected to discuss the island conflict with China President Xi Jinping when Xi visits Washington next week.
The conflict over the islands is closely linked to notions of nationalism and sovereign control. China holds an ambiguous claim on 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is rich in fisheries and includes more than $5 trillion in annual estimated shipping trade.
Most of the sea’s oil and gas resources are close to shore and in undisputed areas. Reed Bank is one of the exceptions.
The Philippines began exploring the area in 1970 and discovered natural gas in 1976, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Philex Petroleum and a British contractor had been exploring the region, but stopped in March, citing a pending case before the International Tribunal of the Law of Sea as the reason.
Reed Bank falls within the area that is part of the Philippines’ court case against China, which contends that a map China uses to support its claims has no legal merit.
China has demonstrated an interest in drilling for energy resources in the South China Sea, even when it generates conflict.
Last year, it deployed a billion-dollar deepwater oil rig near the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam claims. The deployment led to collisions between Chinese coast guard vessels and smaller Vietnamese fishing boats. Vietnamese media images also showed Chinese vessels firing water cannons.
In theory, China and the Philippines could agree to jointly develop the area. Other nations have done so even when they do not completely agree on territorial boundaries, said Pierre Noel, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
However, China maintains its claims are indisputable, leaving little room for compromise.
“Joint development agreements allow you to do what you want to do, once you have solved the political problem,” Noel said. “You need people to compromise on their absolute claim to sovereignty for that to be possible.”