BEIJING — Recent satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press reveal that China is constructing an airstrip on Triton island, a disputed territory in the South China Sea. This island is not only claimed by China but also by Vietnam and Taiwan. The ongoing construction on Triton island closely resembles the development on seven other man-made islands in the Spratly group, located to the east. These islands have been equipped with airstrips, docks, and military infrastructure. However, the scale of construction on Triton island appears to be relatively smaller at the moment.

China asserts ownership over almost the entire South China Sea, disregarding the claims of neighboring countries and defying an international ruling that deemed its assertion invalid.

The satellite images from Planet Labs PBC, analyzed by the AP, show the initial appearance of the airstrip in early August. The Drive, a news website, first reported on these satellite images on Tuesday.

As currently laid out, the runway is expected to be more than 600 meters (2,000 feet) long. This length can sufficiently accommodate turboprop aircraft and drones but falls short for fighter jets or bombers.

Furthermore, the satellite images also reveal numerous vehicle tracks spreading across the island, along with what appear to be containers and construction equipment.

Triton island is a significant territory within the Paracel group. It is located at an approximate equal distance between Vietnam's coast and China's island province of Hainan.

The United States maintains a neutral position regarding sovereignty claims over these disputed territories. However, they regularly send Navy ships on "freedom of navigation operations" near the Chinese-held islands. Triton island was the focal point of one of these missions in 2018.

For several years, China has maintained a small harbor and buildings on Triton island. Additionally, a helipad and radar arrays are present. There are two large fields on the island displaying the star of the Chinese flag and the hammer and sickle symbol representing the ruling Communist Party.

China has refrained from disclosing specific details about its island construction activities, beyond stating that they are primarily intended to enhance global navigation safety. China denies militarizing the strategically important waterway, through which approximately $5 trillion in trade passes annually. Additionally, China asserts its right to exercise full control over its sovereign territory and make decisions accordingly.

It's worth noting that China gained complete control of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam during a brief naval conflict in 1974.

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