FEARS of open conflict in the South China Sea surged after satellite images revealed Chinese warplanes have been deployed to a contested island.
The images, acquired by CNN, show four J-10 fighter jets on the disputed Woody Island. This is believed to be the first deployment of Chinese warplanes to the island since 2017. Beijing’s claim over the South China Sea overlaps with those of five other countries.
China has been building up military installations on islands and artificial reefs in the region.
However its claim is rejected by the United States, which has been sending warships on ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols through the South China Sea.
Peter Layton, a former Australian Air Force officer who works for the Griffith Asia Institute, claimed China wanted its warplanes to be seen.
He said: “They want you to notice them.
“Otherwise they would be parked in the hangers.
“What message do they want you to take from them?”
In 2016 China said it could impose an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea.
This would force aircraft entering the region to first inform the Chinese authorities.
Speaking to CNN Carl Schuster, formerly of the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Centre, said Beijing wanted to “demonstrate it is their territory and they can put military aircraft there whenever they want.
“It also makes a statement that they can extend their air power reach over the South China Sea as required or desired.”
Woody Island is part of the Parcel island chain, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
It has been occupied by Chinese troops since 1974, and contains an airfield with twenty hangers.