The vast land reclamation project on the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, known in China as Yongshu Reef, is one of several pursued by China but the first that could accommodate an airstrip, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool said.
“It appears that’s what they’re working toward,” Pool told AFP.
A harbour also has been dug out on the east side of the reef that appears large enough for tankers and naval warships.
The United States wants China to halt the project and for other governments to cease similar efforts.
“We urge China to stop its land reclamation program, and engage in diplomatic initiatives to encourage all sides to restrain themselves in these sorts of activities,” Pool said.
In the past three months, China has used dredgers to construct an island about 3,000 metres long and 200-300 metres wide on the reef, which was previously under water, according to a report by IHS Jane’s Defence.
The results of the dredging are captured in satellite pictures obtained by IHS Jane’s that cover a period between August 8 and November 14.
“The land reclamation at Fiery Cross is the fourth such project undertaken by China in the Spratly Islands in the last 12-18 months and by far the largest in scope,” the report said.
Before the latest dredging work, the Chinese navy had used a concrete platform and no artificial island had been created.
China already has built islands at Johnson South Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Gaven Reefs, which the Chinese call Chigua, Huayang, and Nanxun, respectively.
Beijing claims nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have asserted their own claims by building structures on reefs or occupying islands.
The other Southeast Asian countries already had airfields in the area and China’s latest efforts could put it in a stronger position as Beijing pursues its claims.
IHS Jane’s said the move appeared aimed to get other countries to relinquish their claims, or provide China a stronger negotiating position should talks take place over the dispute.
The United States has urged China and other states to settle the territorial disputes peacefully and without coercion while urging Beijing to support a regional, multilateral maritime “code of conduct” to defuse confrontations at sea.
But Beijing has tended to prefer bilateral talks with its smaller neighbours, which are heavily dependent on Chinese trade.
China argues it has sovereign control over almost all of the South China Sea, a vital shipping route that is believed to hold lucrative oil and gas deposits.
Beijing has launched naval patrols in waters contested with the Philippines and in May deployed a deep-sea oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands, sparking deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.
Airbus Defence and Space imagery dated 14 November 2014 shows Chinese land reclamation operations under way at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Multiple operating dredgers provide the ability to generate terrain rapidly. Operating from a harbour area, dredgers deliver sediment via a network of piping.