By Tom Jones
The South China Sea dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has again escalated, with IHS Jane’s reporting that China is building a large scale military heliport 300 KM from the islands. Within this range, Chinese helicopter forces would be able to aid forces active in any potential conflict over the islands.
The distance won’t allow the helicopters to offer any air cover for the islands, but it will allow helicopter to run supplies and troops from a reliable and safe base. China’s Super Frelon-based Z-8s, Mi-8s, Sikorsky S-70s and the huge Mil Mi-26s will be able to offer logistical support to any Chinese forces operating in the area. The base is amongst China’s closest facilities, and the construction signals a continuation of China’s build up policy in the region, which has mostly been characterised by land reclamation up until now.
The next step in China’s build up is likely to be construction of an airfield. Currently, its nearest airbase is Luqiao, which is 380KM away from the islands, from which it operates Chengdu J-10A fighters. However, land reclamation efforts at Fiery Cross Islands points to the hole being filled. Work began in August of last year and indications are that the construction will be a 3,000m long airstrip. The construction of this airstrip would really give China an almost unassailable advantage in the contest over the islands. Given the sheer size and technical superiority of China’s forces over those opposing their claims, China’s only disadvantage is the distance of the islands from existing military facilities.
The military build up has been matched by Japan, whose most recent actions are the establishment of a marine corps task force in Nagasaki and their current construction of a coastal radar surveillance unit just 150KM away from the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Given the rapidity of China’s building programme, Japan’s main real hope now lies in a combination of diplomatic outreach, international law court cases, maintaining forces in the area and finally relying on allies with significant capability. This has been boosted by Phillip Hammond’s recent assertion that the UK would be willing to deploy into the Asia-Pacific region to protect the assets of its allies in the area. Although the UK refuses to take any particular stance on the islands disputes, he did hint that the “plethora of territorial claims which still plague the region” could cause problems and that both local and world powers were watching the area with interest.