Recently obtained satellite imagery shows what analysts believe to be a runway or road being built by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Triton Island, part of the Paracel Island group, in the disputed South China Sea. What experts find significant about the discovery is that the Chinese-controlled island’s location is the closest to Vietnam in the disputed territory.
Vietnamese, Taiwan and United States officials in late August 2023 publicly opposed the buildup, which they contend is part of the CCP’s military expansion to bolster maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s “reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea, it’s willingness to use coercion and intimidation, along with other provocative actions undertaken to enforce its expansive and unlawful South China Sea maritime claims, undermine the peace and security of the region,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told Voice of America’s (VOA) Korean Service, adding that the U.S. “unequivocally rejects” the People’s Republic of China’s unlawful maritime claims “and any such interference.”
Defense news website The War Zone called the pace of construction “startling,” saying that it compared satellite images from Planet Labs PBC from mid-July 2023 to those in early August 2023, and the earlier images showed no such activity.
“As well as the airstrip, satellite imagery reveals a huge new work area, including a cement plant. This has all sprung up within the last month,” The War Zone reported in August. “Previously, this Chinese outpost was home to an observation station with two radomes and some big Chinese flags, but not much more.”
The island formerly had only a small harbor and a helipad, according to The War Zone.
The CCP’s actions are likely to “antagonize” Vietnam, Ray Powell, director of SeaLight, a program that analyzes China’s maritime gray zone tactics at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, told VOA. Triton Island is closer to Vietnam than any other Southeast Asian country, according to VOA, putting the Chinese in position to monitor Vietnam’s military activities on a regular basis.
“Such activities would serve to further complicate the situation and prove to be detrimental to peace, stability and security, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight” in the region, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang said at a news conference in late August 2023, according to VOA. “All activities in the Paracel islands conducted without Vietnamese permission are violations of Vietnam’s sovereignty.”
Already, the CCP has built military installations on three features in the disputed Spratly Islands, and the People’s Liberation Army has fighter jets, cruise missiles and a radar system on Woody Island, which serves as its main base in the Paracels, VOA reported.
The suspected airstrip on Triton Island appears smaller than the one on Wood Island, according to The War Zone.
“There is, of course, still a possibility that this just ends up being some sort of roadway, but that seems quite unlikely at this time,” according to The War Zone. “Regardless of whatever the long-term plans for this new addition might be, bearing in mind the location of Triton Island, this significant development of the infrastructure there is of great strategic significance.”