In pictures: The South China Sea reef that became an island
Fiery Cross Reef has been transformed into a 2.8 sq km fortified airbase, in one of the several reclamation projects known as the Great Wall of Sand
China’s frenzied reclamation projects in the South China Sea have dramatically changed reefs and islets in the hotly contested waters.
Fiery Cross Reef – known also as Northwest Investigator Reef and Yongshu Reef to the Chinese – ballooned from a group of scattered reefs in the Spratly Islands to a 2.8-square-kilometer fortification, which is now reportedly the third largest island in the vast waters.
In a year-end feature, Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television aired rare aerial footage of Fiery Cross Reef, which has been transformed into a big island dominated by a 3,125-meter runway, long enough for H-6K strategic bombers to land.
It also has a hospital, plus military installations that include early warning radars and close-proximity weapons systems.
China test-landed two civilian aircraft there in January 2016, one from China Southern Airlines and the other from Hainan Airlines.
It’s now a vital logistics hub in the archipelago to support China’s claims of suzerainty over the entire sea.
China Mobile and China Unicom have separate base stations there to provide ultra-fast 4.5G communication for the 200-plus soldiers stationed on Fiery Cross.
With Beijing seemingly eager to militarise the sea, an initiative known as the “Great Wall of sand” was implemented. The island was created through eight months of non-stop reclamation in 2015 with monster cutter-suction dredgers used to suck up sand from nearby shoals via a technique known as hydraulic fill.
Chinese naval activities near the Spratlys in 1987 began a race to occupy the islands early the following year with Vietnam and other countries that claim territory in the archipelago. Fiery Cross Reef was occupied by Chinese troops in February 1988, supposedly for the construction of a UNESCO marine observation station.
But China’s move to occupy Gac Ma Reef (Johnson Reef) was opposed by Vietnam and led to armed conflict in March that year. More than 60 Vietnamese sailors were reportedly killed – some shot while standing on the reef – when Chinese naval frigates opened fire and sank two Vietnamese ships. A member of a Chinese “survey team” was also injured during the skirmish.
By July 1988, the Chinese were reported to have built a 300-meter pier capable of handling 4,000-ton ships, a helipad, as well as the oceanographic observation station on Fiery Cross Reef.