Satellite Images Show China Has Deployed Military Planes to South China Sea

Satellite images obtained by The Washington Times show several Chinese military aircraft deployed from islands in the widely disputed South China Sea, indicating that China has taken residence and established military operations there.

The images were obtained from former Navy intelligence officer J. Michael Dahm of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), who told the newspaper, "The most significant change in military posture in 2021 is the appearance of Chinese special mission aircraft and helicopters at Subi and Mischief Reefs, indicating the PLA may have commenced routine air operations from those airfields."

The PLA, an acronym for the Chinese People's Liberation Army, reportedly occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in May and June, and the Subi Reef in June and July.

These artificial islands "fill critical gaps in PLA navy capabilities in the South China Sea, especially in terms of reconnaissance and airpower," Dahm said.

China has already built 9,000-foot runways on the three islands to accommodate any aircraft in its fleet, including its nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, according to American Military News.

TAIWAN-PHILIPPINES-CHINA-SPRATLYS-POLITICS
New satellite images show China deploying planes from the islands, demonstrating that they have militarized them. This aerial image taken from a C-130 transport plane shows a general view of Taiping island during a visit by journalists to the island in the South China Sea on March 23, 2016. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

The aircraft seen in the satellite images were allegedly PLA KJ-500 airborne warning and control planes, Y-9 transport planes, and Z-8 helicopters.

At Mischief, Subi, and Fiery Cross Reefs, Dahm also reported in March that China has anti-aircraft, anti-ship and land-attack missiles, which "will likely be employed to cover and defend Chinese naval forces, giving them the ability to project military power deep into the South China Sea and Southeast Asia," said Dahm.

In response to Newsweek's inquiry, Dahm referenced his previous research publications, saying, "From an information perspective, the Chinese outposts give the PLA the same level of knowledge they have about Chinese internal waters, which is, in fact, how Beijing regards the majority of the SCS."

He added: "In any Chinese military operation in the SCS, China will almost certainly start from a position of information superiority enabled by the island-reef outposts."

The militarization of the islands has been widely disputed, as the South China Sea has remained divided by multiple maritime claims by other countries, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The United States has expressed support for countries threatened by China's presence in the sea, and on Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that should China attack the Philippines' forces, the U.S. would come to the Philippines' aid.

"Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea," Blinken said in the statement. "The People's Republic of China (PRC) continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway."

On Monday, China's military reported they had chased an American warship out of a disputed area in the South China Sea.

The islands are "China's inherent territory," the PLA said in a social media post on Monday. "The actions of the U.S. military have seriously violated China's sovereignty and security."

A document by the U.S. State Department in July 2020 was the first to officially reject China's territorialism as "unlawful."

"Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them," the statement read. "The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire."