United States President Donald Trump has been silent on the growing confrontation between U.S. Special Forces and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the South China Sea and of late. However, by the time this story comes out in the Chinese media the world should be informed of how thoroughly the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has changed.
The recent revelation in the Chinese media that China has constructed a cement factory in the South China Sea on Mischief Reef, in the Spratly Islands, to advance its claim on disputed areas, has been receiving the highest ratings.
The construction of the cement plant is part of China’s ongoing effort to build up its military presence on the islands, especially the Spratly Island chain, China’s deployment of a vast new air defense facility on Fiery Cross Reef, and the continued expansion of its artificial islands.
The construction of the cement plant in the Spratly Islands began on December 6, 2016, according to the website of China’s Defense Ministry, and was completed on January 25. Construction on Mischief Reef took longer, but the state-run tabloid Global Times has reported that the cement plant began operations on February 2, and that heavy equipment had moved in, forcing the resumption of cruise missile launches from the Spratly Islands.
China is also readying the construction of several helipads, building a life raft facility, and installing two 3,000-meter runways on the artificial islands. China claims the Spratlys as its sovereign territory.
China has been building infrastructure in the region for a long time, including for commercial purposes. According to news reports, during the first five months of 2016, China spent more than $30 billion on construction in the Spratly Islands, a figure greater than the cost of the U.S. Pacific Command’s entire budget for the region in 2014.
While the media is reporting that China’s cement plant construction is defensive, there are indications that it is a precursor to more intrusive construction by the PLA.
An article on state-run military news website PLA Daily (The Paper of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army) indicates that the construction of the cement plant on Mischief Reef is only the first step in China’s plans to turn the islands into an aircraft carrier. According to the report, the cement plant’s construction coincides with plans for construction of a large military base there, along with facilities to receive and refuel military aircraft and replenish fuel tanks for the jets. The report also said that Chinese officials have already inspected Mischief Reef and assessed the situation there, and are now readying the site for the building of infrastructure for support and sustainment of aircraft carriers. The article noted that China is preparing to build and take delivery of two aircraft carriers, and has been developing and testing long-range strategic airliners for the aircraft carriers.
The Global Times further reports that, “The air force needs several years to upgrade its ability to receive and sustain aircraft on carriers, and preparation for construction of maintenance and support facilities such as helipads and shelters for landing planes has already been underway on the islands.”
If these reports are true, China is working toward enabling the PLA to base aircraft on its own artificial islands in the Spratlys, and to prepare to hold naval and aerial military exercises and war games in the South China Sea, including above or close to the artificial islands.
These activities will make it difficult for the United States and its allies to deny China’s access to the South China Sea, and to deny China’s military advantages in the region.