From listening posts to jet fighter deployments and now surface-to-air missiles, China’s expanding facilities in the Paracel Islands are a signal of long-term plans to strengthen its military reach across the disputed South China Sea.
Diplomats and security experts in contact with Chinese military strategists say Beijing’s moves to arm and expand its long-established holdings in the Paracels will likely be replicated on its man-made islands in the more contentious Spratly archipelago, some 500 kms (300 miles) further south.
Eventually, both disputed island groups are expected be used for jet fighter operations and constant surveillance, including anti-submarine patrols, while also housing significant civilian populations in a bid to buttress China’s sovereign claims.
Crucially, that would give Beijing the reach to try to enforce any effective air defense zone in the South China Sea, similar to the zone it created over the East China Sea in late 2013.
U.S. officials confirmed on Thursday the “very recent” placement of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, the site of the largest Chinese presence on the Paracels, criticizing the move as contrary to China’s commitments not to militarize its claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing says it is entitled to “limited defensive facilities” on its territory, and dismissed reports about the missile placement as media “hype”.
Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said he believed similar weapons could be deployed to China’s holdings in the Spratlys within a year or two.
“This would enable China to back up its warnings with real capabilities,” he said.
Bonnie Glaser, a military analyst at the Centre for Security and International Studies in Washington, said the Paracels build-up was a likely precursor to similar military deployments on China’s recent reclamations in the Spratlys.
While Chinese officials might use on-going U.S. operations in the South China Sea as justification, “there is a plan that has been in place for quite some time”, Glaser said.
The HQ-9 missile batteries, guided by radar tracking systems, have a range of 200 km (125 miles) and are the most significant defensive weapon China has yet placed on the Paracels, regional military attaches say.
The move could complicate surveillance patrols carried out routinely by U.S. and Japanese aircraft as well as flights by U.S. B-52 long-range bombers, operations China objected to last November.
It could also challenge operations by Vietnam’s expanding fleet of Russian-built SU-30 jet fighters. Read More