Dennis C. Blair, chairman of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, was commander of the U.S. Pacific Command from 1999 to 2002 and director of national intelligence from 2009 to 2010. Jeffrey W. Hornung is a fellow with Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
China’s deployment of surface-to-air missile launchers to the largest island in the Paracels chain has led to a spike in alarmist analysis. China’s provocative act is being portrayed as a watershed indicator that it is bent on military dominance of the South China Sea.
It is important to understand the facts and history to identify the true concerns.
First, facts and history: Satellite images of Woody Island in the Paracels from early February showed the HQ-9 air defense system deployed there for the first time. Woody Island is in the northern section of the South China Sea. It is about 250 miles southeast of Hainan Island and 500 miles north of the Spratly Islands that China has enlarged by land reclamation. Unlike the Spratly Islands, which are contested by multiple states, the Paracel Islands are claimed by only China (and Taiwan) and Vietnam. Woody Island itself has been controlled by Beijing for decades and has been heavily built up with civilian and military structures. In any impartial arbitration, China would have a strong claim to this island.
Woody Island has long been home to surveillance radars, an airfield and shelters for military aircraft. Late last year, China deployed advanced jets there and it has apparently done so again in the past few days. According to U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift, this is at least the third time that antiaircraft missiles have been deployed to Woody Island, although previous deployments were of less advanced systems. On the previous occasions, these deployments were part of exercises, which may or may not be the case in this instance.