By Shannon Tiezzi/ March 01, 2016 / THE DIPLOMAT
What China’s deployments to Woody Island mean — and what they don’t mean.
Chinese military assets in the South China Sea have been widely publicized of late, with reports focusing in particular on the deployment of HQ-9 missile batteries and J-11 fighter jets to Woody Island in the Paracels. That, in turn, has sparked a fresh round of criticism of Chinese “militarization” of the South China Sea, particularly from U.S. officials.
“When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize in the South China Sea,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on February 17. “But there is every evidence every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another.”
Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, was even blunter in a Senate hearing on February 23: “In my opinion China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea. You’d have to believe in a flat earth to believe otherwise.”
Yet the recent military deployments to Woody Island are a problematic example to use if the goal is to provide evidence that China is militarizing the South China Sea. In the sense that militarization requires an alteration the status quo, there’s a huge difference between placing military assets on Woody Island – a naturally occurring feature that has hosted Chinese troops for six decades – and, say, on Fiery Cross Reef, which China has expanded by over 2 square kilometers over the past two years in order to construct an airstrip and harbor.
There is a real strategic challenge here for the U.S. and regional states—one that requires careful monitoring and calibrated policy responses, but is only undermined if the U.S. is seen as crying wolf.”
First, some basics: Woody Island , unlike recently expanded features like Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, is a naturally-occurring feature — over 2 square kilometers in area, it’s the largest of the Paracels. Woody, known as Yongxing in Chinese, has been occupied by Chinese troops since 1956 – more than 30 years before Beijing belatedly sent troops to occupy any of the Spratlys. Currently, Woody Island is the seat of government for Sansha, a prefecture-level city established by China in 2012. According to China, Sansha technically administers both the Paracels and the Spratlys, as well as Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal (“Sansha” means “three islands” in Chinese, referring to the Xisha/Paracels, Nansha/Spratlys, and Zhongsha groups).
Unlike most of the features in the South China Sea, Woody Island also touts a sizeable civilian population — “613 local residents,” mostly fishermen, when Sansha City was established in 2012, according to Xinhua. All told, including soldiers, Woody is believed to have over 1,000 residents. To accommodate that population – both military and civilian – the island is home to a government administration building, hospital, school, museums, bank, supermarket. Meanwhile, the island’s existing airport, in addition to its military role, hosts civilian flights to and from Hainan’s Meilan Airport. It can now accommodate Boeing 737s, thanks to the recent expansion of the airport.
Woody Island is also home to military facilities, and has been for decades. Even the two recent deployments – of HQ-9 missile batteries and J-11 fighter jets – aren’t unprecedented. As Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told reporters, China has deployed HQ-9 batteries on Woody at least twice before (although both times were for military drills, which does not appear to be the case this time). Likewise, J-11s have been deployed on Woody Island before – including only a few months ago, in November 2015. Read more…