• Analysts think the ship's task is to collect intelligence on foreign military activities.
  • The US had recently sent warships and spy planes to counter Chinese aggression.
  • China had flown its Y-20 transporter to the Fiery Cross Reef last December.

China continued with its overt display of dominance in the South China Sea by deploying extra surveillance forces on the Fiery Cross Reef, a disputed territory in the waterway.

USNI News reported that satellite imagery from Wednesday showed the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Type-815G intelligence-gathering ship at a military base at Fiery Cross Reef on the Spratly Islands.

A Y-8Q maritime patrol aircraft and a KJ-500 airborne early warning and control plane were also spotted on the fortified island, the report added, citing data provided by Maxar Technologies.

Fiery Cross Reef, a fortified artificial island, is occupied and controlled by China since 1988, despite Vietnam and the Philippines claiming it. In 2014, China began the reclamation of the reef, converting it to an artificial island of 274 hectares.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told South China Morning Post that the surveillance ship's main task was to collect "critical intelligence on foreign military activities."

"Recently there’s been an uptick in foreign military activities, especially naval movements by U.S. and allied forces, in the South China Sea. So, I’ll surmise the ship is observing how these U.S. and allied navies operate together," he told the news outlet.

To counter the increasing Chinese belligerence in the disputed waterways, the United States had recently sent its warships to the South China Sea. In April, a U.S. spy plane had buzzed the Chinese coast amid live-fire exercises carried out by PLA's Liaoning aircraft carrier strike group. This was followed by a patrol of an RC-135W and a P-8A anti-submarine aircraft of the U.S. Navy, in the region.

The PLA ship's deployment at Fiery Cross Reef comes at the same time as Pentagon leaders issued a new directive about China. According to South China Morning Post, these directives are aimed at strengthening cooperation with U.S. allies, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific region.

This isn't the first time that PLA's operations on the disputed reef are taking the world by surprise. Last December, satellite data showed China's biggest warplane, the Y-20 transporter, at the Fiery Cross Reef, for the first time.

The aircraft was seen on the airstrip on the reef but was not observed loading or unloading cargo. According to analysts, the Y-20 is capable of carrying heavy military equipment like armored vehicles and missile launchers.

Chinese navy ships, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, during military drills in the South China Sea
Representation. File image of Chinese navy ship during military drills in the South China Sea AFP / STR