CHINA HAS BEEN on Yongxing, known as Woody Island to most of the rest of the world, since Mao’s troops landed on the then unoccupied island in 1956. Woody is part of the Parcels, the closest of the South China Sea archipelagos to the Chinese mainland, and had previously been occupied by French Indochina, Japan and Nationalist China.
As the image above shows, Woody Island today has been extensively built up for a speck of land in the middle of the South China Sea. It has a hospital, library, school and sports fields as well as a military garrison and airport. ICBC and China Telecom both have branches there. The permanent civilian population numbers more than 1,000.
Beijing administers all its claimed land and waters in the region from the Sansha City prefectural government office that was set up on Woody in 2012. The city office is the building with the silvery dome on the right-hand side of the picture.
Vietnam, which calls Woody Island Phi Lam Island, and Taiwan also have territorial claims derived from previous occupants. Reports that the PLA has deployed two HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries on the island lend credence to the notion that Beijing is gradually stepping up its militarization of the contested waters of the South China Sea.
Last year, it flew J-11 military jets onto the island, whose airstrip is capable of landing China’s fourth-generation military aircraft. At the same time, it is believed that the newest nuclear submarines that China is building will be based at the PLA-Navy’s Yulin base on Hainan Island only 400 kilometers away and where there are underground pens for some 20 submarines as well as space to dock an aircraft carrier.
Woody could serve as a forward defense base for Yulin should it come to an air attack on the base. Yulin is of increasing strategic important as it offers a quicker route to the deep water passages to the Pacific than the PLA-Navy’s northern Xiaopingdao base. The PLA-N needs that rapid blue-water access if its subs are to be a credible second-strike nuclear deterrent.
The HQ-9 is a medium-to-long-range anti-aircraft missile that can be launched from the back of a heavy-duty military truck on land as well as from a destroyer at sea. An HQ-9 land-based battery would have accompanying power generation and radar trucks, the radar being capable of detecting both low altitude and stealth targets.
The arrays seen in the satellite images taken last weekend that have caused the latest stir are positioned to defend the approaches to Yulin.
The initial reports came from the Taiwanese defense minister, with the commander of the US Pacific Fleet subsequently confirming them to the Reuters news agency, saying it represents “a militarisation of the South China Sea” in ways China’s President Xi Jinping had pledged not to make.
China, for its part, says it has every right to deploy limited defences on its own territory and that that has nothing to do with militarisation of the South China Seas.
HQ-9s, though, are highly mobile weapons systems; they could be taken on or off the island by ferry at any time, or just driven into a storage shed.
Their presence on Woody doesn’t likely have great significance in itself. They are not as provocative there as they would be if rolled out on any of the artificial islands being built in the Spratlys. China vacillates in the South China Sea between asserting its claims and ensuring a belligerent stance does not trip over into live hostilities.