BEIJING — China is building a concrete runway on an island in the South China Sea’s contested waters that will be capable of handling military aircraft when finished, satellite images released Thursday show.
The first section of the runway appears like a piece of gray ribbon on an image taken last month of Fiery Cross Reef, part of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago claimed by at least three other countries. Adjacent to the runway, work is underway on an apron for taxiing and parking planes.
The runway, which is expected to be about 10,000 feet long — enough to accommodate fighter jets and surveillance aircraft — is a game changer in the competition between the United States and China in the South China Sea, said Peter Dutton, professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.
“This is a major strategic event,” Mr. Dutton said. “In order to have sea control, you need to have air control.”
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Analysts had speculated that China planned to build an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, but the satellite image from March 23, provided by Airbus and released Thursday by Jane’s Defense Weekly, is the first hard evidence that it is doing so.