China's up to more mischief in the South China Sea. Surveillance photos suggest it has already broken its promise to not land military aircraft on its artificial islands. And there are claims the facilities have begun jamming US forces.
Philippines news service The Inquirer has obtained an aerial surveillance photo taken back in January which appears to show two Chinese Xian Y-7 twin engine aircraft on the recently constructed artificial island of Mischief Reef — also known as Panganiban Reef.
These are military combat transport aircraft, built to rapidly deploy special forces troops and munitions to a battlefield.
The news comes amid reports that electronic warfare equipment recently installed on the islands were last week directed at disrupting the passage of the United States Navy's aircraft carrier, the USS Roosevelt.
Mischief Reef is within the internationally recognised 370km exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that applies to the Philippines. It is one of seven artificial islands arbitrarily constructed within the disputed Spratly Islands cluster. Three of these have large, 3km long military-grade runways.
China refuses to accept the UN economic zone standard, established after World War II to reduce international tensions, as well as an adverse ruling in 2016 by an international court of arbitration on the matter.
Instead, it insists it holds sovereign territorial rights over the whole 3.5 million-square-kilometre South China Sea, right up to 20km of the coasts of bordering nations including Taiwan, Vietnam, Borneo and Malaysia.
"If they could land transports now, in the future they might want to land more provocative and destabilising types of assets such as fighter jets and bombers," research fellow Collin Koh at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies' Maritime Security Program, told The Inquirer.
"And over time, such consistent but creeping practice would become a fact, in effect dealing a fait accompli to Manila, should it choose to stay silent or downplay the issue, and it could become 'routinised' or 'normalised'."
If correct, the photo — reportedly dated January 6 — is further evidence of activities to militarise what Beijing has previously insisted are civilian rescue and commercial support facilities.
These claims have long been in doubt, with analysis of satellite photographs revealing the hangars on the airfields are hardened against attack, that there are buried munitions bunkers and fortified hexagonal towers contain anti-aircraft and antimissile weapons systems.
There are also extensive military-grade radar, communications and transmission systems on several of the islands.
The Inquirer reports the Philippines armed forces have decline to comment on the authenticity of the photograph, or its implications. The Chinese Embassy in Manila also refused to respond to the news service's requests for comment.
The Wall Street Journal reports US intelligence officers have identified radar and communications jamming equipment being installed on Beijing's artificial South China Sea island fortresses.
Such electronic warfare devices are designed to block an opponent's radar from 'seeing' what is going on, and prevent ships and aircraft from communicating with each other and the outside world.
Now, a US Navy pilot appears to have confirmed that these facilities are active.
Serving aboard the USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier which passed through the South China Sea to visit the Philippines last week, he implied the immense warship and its aircraft had been targeted by these disruptive devices.
"The mere fact that some of your equipment is not working is already an indication that someone is trying to jam you." the pilot told the Philippines' GMA News Online.
"And so we have an answer to that," the naval officer cryptically told the journalist invited aboard for a tour of the ship.
The USS Roosevelt had passed through the disputed waterway at the same time as a major Chinese naval parade was being staged on behalf of its new President-for-life, Xi Jinping.
The pilot reportedly flew one of the US Navy's EA-18G Growler aircraft — a modified Super Hornet intended to provide electronic warfare support for accompanying ships and aircraft.
"This is not something that the US will look kindly on or think they can overlook." military analyst Omar Lamrani at geopolitical think-tank Stratfor told Business Insider .
Lamrani said that even though electronic jamming was nothing like shooting a weapon, such activity was provocative and "could lead to an escalatory pattern that could be negative for both sides."