South China Sea
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy [representational image] U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

China has reportedly begun new construction work on the disputed South China Sea. The latest development is a sign that Beijing is moving forward to shore up military reach across the waterway and according to experts, China is making clear its ambitions to strengthen its network of reefs and islets.

According to a Reuters report, new satellite pictures taken on 6 March of the North Island in the Paracels group apparently shows land clearing and also possibly preparation for a harbour that could support potential military installations.

The image come after reports in January suggested that work was being done on nearby Tree Island and other features in Paracels. Both the islands are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Beijing is avoiding overtly provocative moves but diplomats who were briefed on Western intelligence say that China is going ahead with its efforts to dominate the maritime 'backyard', Reuters reported.

The Paracel islands are important to China's presence in the waterway even if the Spratly islands to the south are considered to be of higher profile.

However, responding to the report China's Defence Ministry said it was not familiar with any work at North Island.

In recent times, China has stationed surface to air missile launchers and crack jet fighters at bases on Woody Island on a temporary basis.

A mainland expert at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, Zhang Baohui said: "There's also uncertainty with this young Trump administration, but this is very important work to the Chinese...the Paracels are vital to defending Hainan, which is in turn important to China's nuclear deterrent."

China fully gained control of the Paracels in 1974 after forcing the then South Vietnam navy off from the holdings.

China's territorial disputes explained IBTimes UK