Hong Kong (CNN)China appears to building a third airstrip in disputed waters in the South China Sea, according to new satellite images analyzed by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The images, taken September 8, come after China pledged to bring land reclamation in those waters to a halt, and will make for uncomfortable discussions when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Washington next week.
Greg Poling, the director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said that China had reclaimed a flat rectangle of land with a retaining wall about 3,000 meters (3,280 yards) in length on Mischief Reef. It’s similar to airstrips that China has been building on artificial islands at the Fiery Cross and Subi reefs in the contested Spratly Islands.
“If it does turn out to be a runway, China will have three airstrips that can carry any plane the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has to offer,” he said.
Poling said that China’s land reclamation would be a “top tier” issue when President Obama and President Xi meet next week.
“It’s going to color the visit. There were already going to be uncomfortable discussions and this isn’t going to make it easier,” he said.
Chinese navy ships entered U.S. territorial waters off Alaska earlier this month, coming within 12 miles of the coastline during President Obama’s visit to the state, U.S. officials told CNN.
The officials emphasized that China’s actions were consistent with “innocent passage” under international maritime law.
However, in the South China Sea, the United States has never breached the 12-mile limit accorded under maritime law — even though the U.S. doesn’t recognize the islands as Chinese territory, and their man-made nature may disqualify them from having any maritime zone.
“Some people think it would be a good idea to (cross the limit) as it sends a message and will put the onus on China to explain what it’s doing there,” Poling said.