BEIJING—Newly released satellite images show a dramatic expansion in China’s construction of artificial islands on disputed South China Sea reefs, intensifying concerns about Beijing’s territorial ambitions.

The images provide the first visual evidence that China has built an artificial island covering 75,000 square yards—about 14 football fields—and including two piers, a cement plant and a helipad, at a land formation called Hughes Reef, according to experts who have studied the pictures. The reef, which is above water only at low tide, lies about 210 miles from the Philippines and 660 miles from China.

The pictures, taken by a commercial satellite division of Airbus Group and released by IHS Jane’s, a defense intelligence provider, also show that China has made significant progress in building similar infrastructure in two other places, Johnson South Reef and Gaven Reefs, where Beijing’s territorial claims overlap with those of its neighbors.

China appears to be building a network of island fortresses to help enforce control of most of the South China Sea—one of the world’s busiest shipping routes—and potentially of the airspace above, according to experts who have studied the images.

The pace and scale of its South China Sea buildup shows that Beijing, despite having recently reined in its rhetoric and avoided confrontations at sea and in the air, hasn’t tempered its ambitions to project power in the region.

“The Chinese have built up a head of steam on the land reclamation in the South China Sea over the course of 2014; if anything, it looks to be accelerating,” said a senior U.S. official, who described the extent of China’s reclamation work as “unprecedented.”

Historical images from Google Earth and others reveal that work at all four reefs began after President Xi Jinping took power in 2012. Construction at two of the sites began in the past year, despite protests from neighboring countries, warming military ties with Washington, and a new Chinese drive to improve relations in its periphery.

U.S. officials say they have repeatedly asked China to stop the work, to no avail. Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, conveyed U.S. concerns about the issue on a visit to Beijing this month, according to people familiar with the matter.

In an interview, Mr. Russel declined to discuss the specifics of his talks in Beijing, but said that the U.S. hoped China would stop the reclamation work.

“It is destabilizing and is at odds with the commitments the Chinese made” to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, he said.

China signed a nonbinding agreement with Asean committing to avoid provocative activities in the South China Sea, such as inhabiting previously deserted islands and reefs.

“The sheer acreage of China’s reclamation work over the past two to three years dwarfs anything and everything other claimants have done by many times over,” Mr. Russel said.

China’s foreign ministry declined to comment on the satellite images, but referred to earlier statements that Beijing has sovereignty in the areas where the construction is taking place and that the work is designed to improve the lives of personnel working there.

The reefs in the latest images are part of the Spratly Islands, a cluster of islets, rocks and reefs lying within the so-called nine-dash line by which Beijing delineates its claim to almost all of the South China Sea.

China’s claims overlap with those of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines—a U.S. treaty ally—and many of them have been bolstering defense ties with the U.S. in recent years in response to what they see as Beijing’s enhanced efforts to assert its claims.

Other claimants, notably Vietnam, have built infrastructure on islands and reefs they control, but on a much smaller scale, according to U.S. officials and regional experts.

The Philippine government has been especially vocal in protesting Chinese construction in contested areas, most recently lodging a formal complaint this month over reclamation it says China is conducting at another site in the Spratlys called Mischief Reef. Philippine officials declined to comment on the new images, and Vietnamese authorities weren’t immediately available to comment.

Many experts and U.S. officials say the Chinese infrastructure is explicitly military in nature, whereas some of its other recent efforts to assert territorial claims have been carried out by its coast guard and fisheries administration.

“Where it used to have a few small concrete platforms, it now has full islands with helipads, airstrips, harbors and facilities to support large numbers of troops,” said James Hardy, Asia Pacific Editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a publication specializing in military affairs.

Such infrastructure, he said, allows China to enforce the nine-dash line more forcefully. He said China was reclaiming land in at least one other reef in the area, but satellite imagery wasn’t publicly available.

“We can see that this is a methodical, well-planned campaign to create a chain of air and sea capable fortresses across the center of the Spratly Islands chain,” he said.

Some U.S. and regional officials have suggested that China could use the new infrastructure to help enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone similar to the one it established in late 2013 over much of the East China Sea, where its territorial claims overlap with Japan’s. China has said it would establish more air-defense zones but doesn’t have imminent plans to establish one over the South China Sea.

Images published by Jane’s in November show Chinese work in a fourth disputed area, Fiery Cross Reef, which experts including military analysts and academics say is extensive enough to eventually include an airstrip.

Chinese aircraft can patrol the East China Sea with relative ease from bases in eastern China, but can’t operate effectively over the Spratlys and other far-flung parts of the South China Sea without refueling and ground support.

The facilities at Fiery Cross Reef could be suitable for that eventually, according to some experts. One possibility is that China would use an airstrip there as a backup for future operations by its first aircraft carrier, which it launched in 2011 and has sent on training operations in the South China Sea.

In the near term, the infrastructure will likely be used more to enhance radar coverage of the area, support a small presence of military personnel, and provide logistics support for ships patrolling the farther reaches of the South China Sea, according to several experts.

The facilities will likely be used to “enforce China’s territorial and jurisdictional claims, and bring pressure to bear on warships and coast guard vessels from the other claimants,” said Ian Storey, an expert on the South China Sea at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“It shows that despite recent accommodating rhetoric from Beijing that it seeks to cool tensions in the South China Sea, its policy to assert dominance within the so-called nine-dash line remains fundamentally unchanged.”

He and other experts, as well as U.S. officials, said that China’s activities wouldn’t bolster its legal claims in the South China Sea under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, as only naturally-formed land features allow a country to claim maritime rights in surrounding waters.

A U.N. tribunal is currently hearing a case brought by the Philippines against China over its claims in the South China Sea. However, China is widely expected to ignore the tribunal’s verdict and the U.S. and its allies and partners have few options to prevent Beijing from continuing with its reclamation and construction work.

“The U.S. and its allies and partners can only make declaratory protests that China should halt its activities and exercise self-restraint. China will ignore these protests,” said Carlyle Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “The use of U.S. naval warships would be an escalation and carry risks.”

By: Jeremy Page for the Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2015

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