China’s Naval Aviation Force Shows up at Fiery Cross Reef

Chinese military aircraft have been sighted once again at its largest base in the disputed Spratly Islands, suggesting that People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force could be starting to use it as a base of operations, according to Jane’s.

The reported presence of the PLANAF at Fiery Cross Reef is the latest sign of China’s efforts to assert control over the South China Sea from the bases it finished building atop reefs and rocks in 2016. It comes amid a slew of Chinese actions at sea and administrative measures that appear intended to reinforce Beijing’s sweeping maritime claims.

Jane’s, which covers defense and intelligence issues including the capabilities of other countries’ militaries, says commercial satellite imagery taken Monday shows two kinds of surveillance aircraft alongside a military helicopter at Fiery Cross Reef, which is the seat of China’s new “Nansha” administrative district spanning the entire Spratly chain.

China has placed aircraft on its artificial islands and bases in the South China Sea before including the first H-6K bomber landed on Woody Island in 2018, which lies north in the Paracel Islands. However, those deployments came from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The aircraft spotted by Jane’s belongs to the PLANAF, the fast-growing aviation wing of China’s navy.

“Two sightings of surveillance aircraft within a month could indicate that the PLANAF is beginning to periodically base aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef,” Sean O’Connor, principal analyst at Jane’s, said in a press release. “Aircraft could be regularly rotated through the base from other PLANAF units in the South Sea Fleet.”

He said sufficient hangar space is available for at least three surveillance aircraft, although others could be parked in the open.

Jane’s said satellite imagery also showed a Type 071 amphibious transport ship docking at Fiery Cross Reef – another display of China’s growing naval and expeditionary might as it militarizes the South China Sea and intimidates other claimants to its waters.

These most recent deployments were preceded by the appearance of a Y-8 military transport or KJ-200 maritime patrol aircraft on Fiery Cross on May 3 – both types of aircraft are closely related and appear similar when viewed from above.

Previously, China promised not to use its string of artificial islands in the Spratlys as a base for military action. Speaking at the White House in September 2015 after a meeting with then-U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping pushed back on U.S. concern over this issue, telling a news conference: “there is no intention to militarize.”

Since then, China appears to have backtracked on that commitment. Fiery Cross boasts hangars for fighter jets, bombers, and military transport planes, and has a deep harbor for accommodating warships and ships of the China Coast Guard traveling far out into the South China Sea. China has also deployed surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles on Fiery Cross Reef, threatening any nearby navies and aircraft.

Fiery Cross has become a center of operations for a wide range of activities by China. It set up an ecological monitoring station there in January, a station for deep-sea research in March, and has permanently stationed ships of the China Rescue Service at Fiery Cross Reef’s new search and rescue bureau as of February.

Then on April 19, China announced two new administrative districts governing the South China Sea, with “Nansha District” holding jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands despite claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan to the area. The announcement was immediately condemned by Vietnam.

The United States has stepped up its own shows of military might in the South China Sea in recent weeks.

After China sent a survey ship and a formidable escort of ships into Malaysian waters where a Malaysian-contracted oil drillship was operating, U.S. and Australian warships sailed nearby to show their presence. The littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords has deployed twice in two weeks, most recently on Tuesday after another littoral combat ship, the USS Montgomery, took a turn patrolling the area on May 7.

“There is no better signal of our support for a free and open Indo-Pacific than positive and persistent U.S. Naval engagement in this region.” Rear Adm. Fred Kacher said in a statement released yesterday by the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet.

But as of Tuesday, the drillship West Capella had withdrawn, according to a statement by its operator, confirmed by vessel-tracking software. The Malaysian government and Petronas, the state petroleum company that had contracted the ship, did not respond to request for comment Wednesday. The ship operator said the West Capella had “finished its planned work.”

The Chinese presence in the area of the West Capella for the past month was widely viewed as trying to pressure Malaysia out of exploring for resources in seas that China also claims. The Chinese survey ship remains in the area.

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