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MANILA – China is gradually transforming its small outpost at Kagitingan Reef, internationally known as Fiery Cross Reef, into its main military base to project its influence in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Recent surveillance photos show China may not be building not just one, but two runways as well as a harbor – that could possibly serve as a possible submarine base – in its massive land reclamation activities in the Philippine zone of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
In a secret 2005 Philippine government report to the Arroyo Administration, the Fiery Cross Reef garrison was already seen as China’s main headquarters in the Kalayaan Island Group.
The photos show China has nearly doubled, even tripled the land area size, at Kagitingan Reef (also known as Fiery Cross Reef) and Chigua Reef (also known as Kennan Reef). The most notable features at both reefs are the airstrips, which are long enough to support combat and air support aircraft.
From a small outpost measuring 1,032 square meters, Kagitingan Reef’s reclaimed land area is now 90,000 square meters. One side of the island is three kilometers long and 300 meters wide: large enough for a runway, support roads and apron. China’s building of an airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef is seen as a major development as they are the only claimant with no permanent airfield in the disputed area.
Apart from the airstrip, another major feature of Fiery Cross Reef is the construction of a harbor that is estimated to be large enough to handle major surface warships, tankers and even possibly, submarines.
According to an analysis by Jane’s Defense Weekly written in November 2014, “China has been a distinct disadvantage compared with the other claimants in the Spratly Islands as it is the only claimant not to occupy an island with an airfield.” The Philippines has an airfield at Pagasa Island, which is the largest island in the Spratlys; Taiwan’s airstrip is on Itu Aba Island, Malaysia’s airstrip is on reclaimed land at Swallow Reef and Vietnam’s is in Southwest Cay.
“The work at Fiery Cross thus brings parity but is likely to cause alarm among the other claimants,” Jane’s said, noting further that China is willing to spend “blood and treasure” to assert its claims.
The Fiery Cross Reef garrison was one of the six Chinese military garrisons built in the Philippine zone of the disputed Spratly Islands. In 2005, the Philippine military briefed the Arroyo Administration on the existence of the garrisons, noting that all the garrisons were equipped with heavy weapons and some can house at least a hundred soldiers.
The 2005 report already noted the importance of the Fiery Cross Reef garrison as it set up sea surface and air radars, satellite communications and maritime observatory equipment. At that time, it could already house 200 troops that can be supplied by helicopter and large cargo ships.