The image above, provided by IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, shows that China has begun building a runway on an island in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. According to Jane's, satellite photos dated from March 23 show "a paved section of runway" on the northeastern side of Fiery Cross Reef, a formation in the archipelago that China began converting into an island last year.

Earlier this month, my colleague Simon Denyer wrote about the "Great Wall of sand" that China is erecting in the middle of the strategic body of water, which is contested by a host of Asian countries but claimed virtually in its entirety by Beijing.

Much to the ire of U.S. officials and neighboring governments, China has steadily expanded its footprint in the South China Sea's Paracel and Spratly Islands -- spits of uninhabited coral and rock that spark frequent flare-ups and confrontations between Chinese vessels and those of Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.

China has embarked on extensive land reclamation projects and the construction of whole urban structures and facilities, particularly in the Paracels, which lie closer to the Chinese mainland. Other Southeast Asian countries also maintain a hodgepodge of installations and listening posts on the Spratly archipelago but can't match the speed and capability of the Chinese.

The Spratly Islands lie in an area some say could yield rich underwater energy reserves. Parts of it are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Denyer cites a report on China's maritime military build-up:

“This history matters a great deal, because what Washington and its friends and allies may see as punctuated, lightning-speed construction is likely viewed in China as a perfectly legitimate game of catch-up,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), wrote in a recent report.
“What sets China’s activities apart, however, is that Beijing has been dramatically changing the size and structure of existing physical land features, while other claimants have built upon or modified existing land masses,” she wrote in a related report.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III, who has criticized China's assertive presence in the South China Sea, said in an interview with AFP this week that the current situation "should engender fear for the rest of the world."

The overlapping regional claims in the South China Sea are a matter of heated nationalism, and an unfortunate skirmish or confrontation could trigger a wider geopolitical conflagration.

"The question of it escalating to something beyond everybody's control should be at the top of the minds of all world leaders,"  Aquino warned.

Read related stories: