China continues to expand Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
Satellite imagery shows that since October 2013 China has undertaken substantial land reclamation, harbour redevelopment and other infrastructure construction on the island, which is known as Yongxing Dao by China and Phu Lam Island by Vietnam.
China has occupied Woody Island since 1956 and, since then, has established a military garrison, coastal defensive positions, the runway, four large aircraft hangars, communications facilities, and a municipal headquarters. Vietnam claims the Paracels, as does Taiwan.
Previous satellite imagery analysis by IHS Jane's shows that between 2005 and 2011 authorities constructed a new harbour on the west side of the island; since October 2013 a breakwater immediately south of that harbour has been removed and more dredging work has been carried out.
The land reclamation is occurring at two areas in particular: at either end of the island's 2,400 m-long runway, and to fill in the gap between Woody Island and the causeway to Shi Dao (Rocky Island): a small outcrop that is believed to house a secure communications facility.
The dredgers are depositing sand onto an area on the southwest end of the runway; spoil is also being deposited on the runway's northeast end. If all of this new land is used for the runway, then the strip will increase from 2,400 m to 2,700-2,800 m. This increases the safety envelope for PLA Air Force bombers like the H-6 and strategic transport aircraft such as the Ilyushin Il-76.
IHS Maritime has used AISLive data to identify one of the dredgers being used as Xin Hai Tun , a cutter suction dredger built by Guangzhou Wenchong Shipyard and operated by SDC Orient Dredging and Engineering. Other dredgers operating in the area appear to be barges fitted with clamshell dredgers. Alongside are a number of container ships, including one called Xing He Yuan 1 , which is owned by Taizhou Xinghe Shipping Co Ltd. The company's website highlights its expertise in dyke and pier construction.
Along with the Spratly Islands, the Paracels are at the heart of the continuing South China Sea (SCS) dispute. Whereas the Spratlys' location in the southern part of the SCS has previously limited Chinese activities there, the Paracels' proximity to Hainan island has meant Beijing has been able to expand its jurisdiction and administration of them. Woody Island has been a particular focus and, in July 2012, was designated the capital of Sansha Prefecture, which is part of Hainan province.
The moves to extend the runway and rebuild the harbour on the west side of the island will enhance Woody Island's utility as a military base from which to project power in the SCS. The Paracels' strategic location close to the centre of the SCS also means China can use them as a base for constabulary operations, whether that is enforcing fishing regulations unilaterally imposed by Beijing or to potentially interdict shipping traversing the region, where Beijing move to do this as part of a wider sea control strategy.
In the short to medium term, it is unlikely that China would move to do so, as the sea lanes in this part of the SCS serve its ports - such as Hong Kong and Shanghai - and as such freedom of passage is in China's interest.
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