As tensions in the South China Sea continue to boil to all-time highs, China has deployed fighter jets to one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, Fox News reports, citing two U.S. officials.
Fox News says the fighter jets have been deployed to the same island where China deployed two batteries of eight HQ-9 surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system last week, on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands.
According to Fox News, Chinese Shenyang J-11s (“Flanker”) and Xian JH-7s (“Flounder”) fighter jets have been spotted by U.S. intelligence on Woody Island over the past few days.
Here is more from The Wall Street Journal (WSJ):
The recent fighter-jet deployment “is not a surprise and has been going on for the last few years,” said Capt. Darryn James, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command. “But it is still part of a disturbing trend of China’s militarization of the South China Sea.”
“The specifics of a recent deployment of fighter aircraft to Woody Island would be less an issue than the signal it sends of how far out of step China’s actions are with the aspirations of the region,” said Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban.
The dramatic escalation came minutes prior to a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at the State Department on Tuesday.
Ahead of Wang’s visit to Washington with Kerry, a spokeswoman likened China’s military buildup on Woody Island to that of the U.S. Navy’s in Hawaii.
“There is no difference between China’s deployment of necessary national defense facilities on its own territory and the defense installation by the U.S. in Hawaii,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.
During the meeting between Kerry and Wang on Tuesday the two discussed a range of issues including the South China Sea disputes and North Korea’s nuclear program, the WSJ said.
Wang criticized recent U.S. military patrols near the Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea, stating “we don’t hope to see any more close-up military reconnaissance or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea.”
Kerry speaking on reports of China’s surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system on the disputed islands said:
“If a radar is there for some sort of normal navigation process and there’s no missile attached to it, there are ways to work these things out.”
“But regrettably, there are missiles and fighter aircraft and guns, artillery, and other things that have been placed into the South China Sea … This is of great concern to everyone who transits and relies on the South China Sea for peaceful trade, commerce, and use.”
Earlier in the day on Tuesday, a new report said that China may be building a high-frequency (HF) radar facility on one of the islands in the disputed waters, which poses a bigger threat to the balance of power in one of the world’s busiest waterways than previously detected surface-to-air missile equipment.
According to a report from CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, new radar facilities being developed at Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands will bolster China’s ability to monitor surface and air traffic and could significantly change the operational landscape in the South China Sea.
For China, such radar facilities, in addition to runways and air defense capabilities on the island would establish effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the oil-rich South China Sea, the report said.
Developments at Cuarteron Reef, the southernmost of China’s occupied features in the South China Sea, are particularly important. Construction of facilities at Cuarteron seems nearly complete and the artificial island now covers about 52 acres (211,500 square meters). Two probable radar towers have been built on the northern portion of the feature, and a number of 65-foot (20-meter) poles have been erected across a large section of the southern portion. These poles could be a high-frequency radar installation, which would significantly bolster China’s ability to monitor surface and air traffic across the southern portion of the South China Sea.
The report says that the deployment of the HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles, while notable, doesn’t alter the military balance in the South China Sea, however, the new radar facilities being constructed will be a game changer by altering the operational landscape and will help China establish effective control of air and sea in the disputed waters.
This month’s deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels, while notable, does not alter the military balance in the South China Sea. New radar facilities being developed in the Spratlys, on the other hand, could significantly change the operational landscape in the South China Sea. And when along with the development of new runways and air defense capabilities, they speak to a long-term anti-access strategy by China—one that would see it establish effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the South China Sea.
Last month a U.S. Navy ship USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, came within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the disputed Paracel Islands, which thus angered China and sent tensions to an all-time high.
In response to the incident, The Pentagon said the warship was exercising the right to freedom of navigation in open seas.
Chinese state media said last week in an op-ed piece that its military forces should fire warning shots and deliberately ram U.S. warships that sail too close to their islands in the disputed South China Sea.
In the article, posted on the social media account of the People’s Daily, state media declared that China must “teach the U.S. a lesson” should they continue intruding on China’s rightful territory, the South China Morning Post reported.
China has been embroiled in fierce territorial disputes in the region ever since they claimed a vast swathe of land known as the ‘nine-dash line.’
Tensions in the South China Sea have been on the rise since Beijing began a massive ‘land reclamation’ project to expand and construct facilities on small islands in the disputed areas of the region.
Here are some satellite images of the military buildup on the disputed islands in the South China Sea:
Images are courtesy of Stratfor Global Intelligence and CSIS:
China’s artificial island on Cuarteron Reef, as of January 24, 2016.
The southern section of China’s outpost on Cuarteron Reef, as of January 24, 2016.
The northern section of China’s outpost on Cuarteron Reef, as of January 24, 2016.
China’s artificial island on Gaven Reef, as of February 12, 2016.
The northern section of China’s outpost on Gaven Reef, as of February 12, 2016.
China’s artificial island on Hughes Reef, as of February 7, 2016.
The eastern section of China’s outpost on Hughes Reef, as of February 7, 2016.
China’s artificial island on Johnson South Reef, as of February 9, 2016.
The northern portion of China’s outpost on Johnson South Reef, as of February 9, 2016.