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Satellite images show that China is building an illegal airstrip in the South China Sea

China appears to be building an airstrip on a disputed island in the South China Sea, also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press.

Work on Triton Island in the Paracel Group mirrors construction on seven man-made islands in the Spratly Group to the east, which have been provided with airstrips, docks and military systems, although they currently appear to be of a somewhat more modest scale .

Planet Labs PBC satellite photos analyzed by the AP show construction on the runway, first visible in early August.

In its current form, the runway would be more than 600 meters long, long enough for turboprop aircraft and drones, but not for fighter jets or bombers.

Also visible are numerous vehicle tracks running across much of the island, as well as what appear to be containers and construction machinery.

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Triton is one of the main islands in the Paracel group, roughly equidistant from the coast of Vietnam and the Chinese island province of Hainan.

The US takes no position on claims of sovereignty, but regularly sends naval vessels on “freedom of navigation operations” near the islands controlled by China. Triton was the focus of one of those missions in 2018.

China has had a small port and buildings on the island for years, as well as a helipad and radar facilities.

Two large panels on the island feature a star of the Chinese flag and the hammer and sickle, representing the ruling Communist Party.

China has declined to give details of its island construction work, except to say it aims to improve global shipping safety.

Beijing has denied accusations that it is militarizing the vital waterway, which is estimated to be used to trade £3.9 trillion a year, and has said it has the right to do as it pleases within its sovereign territory.

China took full control of the Paracels of Vietnam in 1974 in a brief naval conflict.

The satellite images emerged hours after Riedel Research Group President David Riedel warned the US might be missing a “really serious problem” in the region.

Riedel told CNBC, “I think you really have to pay attention to the South China Sea.”

“I was really concerned about this recent attack by the Chinese military, the Chinese Navy, on a Philippine supply ship.

“They were shooting at them with water cannons to stop them resupplying one of the military ships on one of their own islands – that's a real hotspot around the world and we could look back in five years and be like, ‘Oh, we missed that.' Likewise, we missed Russia-Ukraine and we are ashamed that we missed a really serious problem in the South China Sea.”

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