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China operating military flights from South China Sea bases

Although the Spratly Island is claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and China, it has been dominated by China since 2018

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As China begins the construction of the first commercial small modular reactor (SMR) of the world, the country’s military has deployed electronic warning and surveillance aircraft and helicopters on two disputed islands in the South China Sea, The Washington Times reported.

Satellite images procured by the publication reveal that the deployment had begun in May and June of PLA KJ-500 airborne warning and control aircraft to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island. Moreover, other satellite captures show the stationing of a Y-9 transport aircraft and Z-8 helicopter to Subi Reef in June and this month. Last year, KQ-200 anti-submarine warfare aircraft were deployed on Fiery Cross Reef.

The reefs are part of a triangle of the South China Sea military bases, which can house all kinds of warplanes and bombers, and even comprise docking facilities capable of handling most Chinese warships.

The satellite visuals of the military aircraft were captured by J Michael Dahm, a former Navy intelligence officer, who is currently associated with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory also known as APL.

Dahm said that the most vital change in military posture in 2021 is the “appearance of Chinese special mission aircraft and helicopters at Subi and Mischief Reefs,” indicating that China has commenced routine air operations from its bases.

The deployments were found after the publication of a research report, revealing the locations of anti-aircraft, land-attack strike missiles, and anti-ship on three of China’s seven-island reefs including Mischief and Subi, by Dahm.

He said that surveillance aircraft, island-based anti-surface, anti-air missile systems, and strike fighters are expected to be employed to “Cover and defend Chinese naval forces,

Strike fighters, surveillance aircraft and island-based anti-surface and anti-air missile systems “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,” the report said.

Although the Spratly Island is claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and China, it has largely been dominated by China since 2018. Tensions emerged there this week after a Chinese warship pulled off an unsuccessful attempt as per the US Navy to force the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold to leave the area near the Paracel Islands in South China Sea’s northern tip.

The APL report by Dahm pointed out that the island reefs are equipped to render the Chinese Army with “superior battlespace awareness and a decided information advantage in any future military conflict” in the South China Sea, the Washington Times report.

The APL report further warns that China could deploy anti-ship ballistic missiles to the islands since each of the three airfields is equipped with 24 aircraft hangers for jet fighters.

Phillip Orchard, an analyst at Geopolitical Futures, a consulting group, said that the Chinese bases in the South China Sea provide Beijing strategists with key military outposts. However, in an “actual, prolonged conflict with the US and its allies, the tactical value of the Spratlys would rapidly diminish”.

This development could trigger a response not just from the US, but from other East Asian nations who are concerned over China’s expansionist drive. Orchard said that this “show of force” demonstrates that the seven artificial island bases that China has built in the Spratly Island since 2013 can be put to good use in “scenarios short of war,” as per the Washington Times report.

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