CSIS: AMTI Brief – July 30, 2015

Airpower in the South China Sea
China is not the first, but the fifth claimant to build an airstrip in the Spratly Islands. Are all airstrips created equal? What kinds of operations does each enable? This issue of AMTI explores the role of airstrips and airpower in the South China Sea.

Much attention has been paid to China’s new airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef. How does this runway compare to Malaysia’s on Swallow Reef, the Philippines’ on Thitu Island, Taiwan’s on Itu Aba, or Vietnam’s on Spratly Island? In this issue, explore infographics on each claimant’s airstrip size and the aerial operating range each enables. Watch an exclusive interview on China’s Fiery Cross runway with RAND Senior International Defense Analyst Timothy R. Heath. View satellite images of each Spratly airstrip and read more about the types of operations that each may enable. Read On…


Expert Analysis

China’s Airfield Construction at Fiery Cross Reef in Context: Catch-Up or Coercion?
Although China is not the first state to build an airstrip in the South China Sea, it is the first state to employ island-building technologies to transform a contested maritime feature into a military base that extends the reach of offensive military capabilities. Other countries have worked to project power to contested South China Sea features; with the airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, China has worked to project power from them… [Read more from Michael Chase and Ben Purser] 

Patrolling International Skies: Understanding Joint Air Patrols
In examining recent suggestions for joint patrolling of the South China Sea, analysts have tended to focus on the surface vessels of various nations’ coast guards and navies. Yet the flight of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon hosting a CNN film crew over disputed waters in the South China Sea in May highlighted the potential of air power – specifically maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) – in executing the possible missions of joint patrols. To explore the potential effectiveness of South China Sea joint air patrols it is important to first be clear about the often overlooked distinctions in missions, locations, and concepts. [Read more from Scott Cheney-Peters]


Philippines’ Lopsided South China Sea Policy
More than any country in the region, the Philippines has sought to protect its territorial integrity through “lawfare” (legal warfare), taking China to the court over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Perturbed by China’s growing assertiveness across disputed waters, evident in its expanded para-military patrols, massive reclamation activities, and regular military drills in the area, the Philippines has also doubled down on its military spending, hoping to modernize its armed forces. [Read more from Richard Javad Heydarian]


The Case for Japan’s Patrol in the South China Sea
Over the past few months, speculation about possible Japanese patrols in the South China Sea has attracted media attention. The United States’ 7th Fleet Commander welcomed such patrol by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), while Japan’s defense minister and top uniform officer responded cautiously but positively. [Read more from Tetsuo Kotani]


South China Sea Civilian Air Patrol Capability and the U.S.-Japan Alliance
Increased tensions over China’s maritime sovereignty claims in the Western Pacific pose a challenge for the international system. A confrontation between China and Japan in the East China Sea continues mainly between Japan’s national coast guard ships and China’s government and civilian fishery vessels, but it seems to have reached a kind of moderate stalemate as the two governments have resumed working-level talks aimed at establishing a maritime communication mechanism between Japan and China. While the situation bears watching, U.S. statements reiterating that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which obligates the United States to defend Japan, applies to the Senkaku islands, as well as the continuous presence of Japan’s coast guard and Maritime Self-Defense Forces around the islands, must have played a major role in achieving the current relative stability. [Read more from Hiroshi Waguri]

Featured Imagery

Itu Aba – April 23, 2015


Spratly Island – July 15, 2015


Swallow Reef – June 5, 2015


Thitu Island – April 28, 2015






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