South China Sea face off: The mystery of Woody Island

Peter Lee February 24, 2016 1:48 PM (UTC+8)
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A single report that the PRC had deployed surface-to-air missiles in the South China Sea created quite the media firestorm. What if I told you, as the Internet meme goes, it was just a case of Same Old Same Old?

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands.
Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands.

Fox News got the ball rolling with an Exclusive! on February 16, declaring on the basis of commercial satellite imagery provided to Fox China sends surface-to-air missiles to contested island in provocative move.

What you see from the commercial imagery is fuzzy boxes. The official confirmation:

A US official confirmed the accuracy of the photos. The official said the imagery viewed appears to show the HQ-9 air defense system, which closely resembles Russia’s S-300 missile system.

Further confirmation was provided by the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense, whose spokesman stated that the MND had “grasped” i.e. was confident in its intel that there had been missiles on the island and “judging from the satellite photos it appeared that the missiles were HQ-9”.

國軍先前已掌握此項動態,會密切注意後續發展。國防部認為相關各方應共同維持區域和平穩定,避免採取任何升高緊張情勢的單邊措施。軍方官員也指出,根據衛星照片,解放軍部署在永興島的飛彈是「紅旗九型」。

The title of the initial report from Taiwan’s United Daily News, a sizable pro-KMT outlet, is interesting:

陸永興島部署飛彈 我早掌握

“We knew early on there were missiles on Woody Island.”

The report paraphrases the MND spokesman, Brig. Gen. David Lo, as saying, “We had been previously aware of this activity and will pay close attention to how it develops in the future.”

Hmm.

On to the fallout.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when confronted by the report at a press availability with Australian FM Julie Bishop in Beijing, appeared blindsided and resorted to a non-denial denial:

Following talks with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, Wang said he had become aware of the missile reports just minutes before.

“We believe this is an attempt by certain Western media to create news stories.”

Given time to reflect, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson pursued the same line — neither confirming nor denying the report but asserting the PRC’s prerogative of putting defensive facilities in the SCS — on three consecutive days at the press briefing. The exchanges were reproduced on the MOFA website which, since MOFA’s choice of content to display from its press conferences is, to put it politely, rather selective, indicates that the PRC had decided to advertise this position.

Admiral Harry Harris, who runs the US Navy’s Pacific shebang, was paraphrased in the New York Times as saying the reports, “if verified” would concern him:

Adm. Harry Harris
Adm. Harry Harris

Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the head of the United States Pacific Command, said on Wednesday that the missile deployment, if verified, would go against pledges not to militarize the South China Sea that China’s president, Xi Jinping, made in September when meeting with President Obama at the White House.

On Feb. 19, courtesy of the US Pacific Fleet Commander via Military.com’s reporter Hope Seck, we finally get some hard info:

“My response would be, ‘OK, let’s be thoughtful about this,’ ” Adm. Scott Swift said Thursday at the AFCEA West Conference in San Diego, adding that the move needed to be viewed in context with the island’s history.

Swift’s remarks came a day after Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the reported move as a sign of “increased militarization” and promised to have a “very serious” conversation with Chinese authorities about the alleged missile deployment. Chinese President Xi Jinping promised not to militarize the South China Sea in a Rose Garden meeting with President Barack Obama, Kerry noted.

In fact, Swift said, this is at least the third time that Woody Island has housed HQ-9 missiles; twice previously, China has sent missiles to the island for exercises.

“So that context is important. This isn’t exactly something that’s new,” he said.

During one of those exercises, Swift said, the Chinese actually employed the weapons system, using an HQ-9 missile to shoot down a drone.

“So there’s an end-to-end test that the system is operational and it works,” he said.

But unlike previous missile deployments to Woody Island, this one had no association with an exercise, Swift said.

“So the real question is, ‘What’s the intent? How long is it going to be there? Is this a permanent forward deployment of this weapons system or not?’ ” he said. “So it’s a series of questions that we need to generate and ask ourselves.”

If this was indeed the third time HQ-9s showed up on Woody Island, it would explain the “we’ve known for a while” statement from Taiwan.

Anyway, so far it’s a lot of “appears” “if verified” “reported move.” Admiral Swift comes the closest to confirming it through his matter of fact characterization of “the move,” while indicating he doesn’t know much about it.  A little short on firebreathing.

And the PRC sidestepped every direct question by simply reasserting its right to put defensive facilities in the South China Sea.

Admiral Swift’s remarks, by the way, rather shakes my faith in Jane’s as an infallible source of milsec tittle-tattle given that it started off its Feb. 17 report with “For the first time China has deployed up to 32 fourth-generation HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to Woody Island in the Paracels…”

For the heck of it, NPR:

LANGFITT: I think it is. I’ve been talking to a lot of analysts today, and this is the first time most of them can remember China actually putting missiles on disputed islands.

Just like in Hollywood, the motto for reporting on the military in Asia is “Nobody knows anything.” Exactly the way the DoD likes it, I expect.

Let’s unpack this thing.

First of all, the initial Fox story was pretty unambiguously intended as a hatchet job on President Obama and his namby-pamby handling of the ASEAN summit at Sunnyland, which failed to deliver a denunciation of the PRC’s malfeasance in the South China Sea.

If readers have any doubt, watch the Fox News video report on the “nightmare for President Obama” during the ASEAN summit: “another example of a foreign power challenging President Obama to respond to an act of defiance and aggression.”

And it looks to be a mid-level Pentagon China hawk hatchet job using crappy commercial satellite imagery and not the US military recon satellite imagery with reported resolution of 10 inches (why reporters don’t demand that the US military trot out the good stuff for these leaks is beyond me, but whatever). Fox News can take pride in sharing a name with one of nature’s cleverest mammals, but it is, to be kind, not a top-shelf destination for White House or Department of Defense leaks. It also lacks a Beijing bureau or for that matter anything closer to Asia than Kabul as far as I can tell, a rather remarkable fact in today’s day and age. So it has little interest in trying to get a Chinese response before releasing the story into the wild.

Big media was also happy? desperate? to run with Fox’s story without getting a PRC comment. Reuters was steered to General Lo in Taiwan, not the usual quote source for Western outlets on Paracel Islands affairs, perhaps because no ASEAN defense ministry was interested in helping out on the story while the civilian leadership was off at Sunnylands.

But it doesn’t seem the Navy brass was terribly enthusiastic. Although the magic words “South China Sea” are attached to the story, Woody Island is in the Paracels, real islands real close to the Chinese coast (seized from Vietnam in 1974 and, though “disputed,” neverneverever going back to Vietnam), not the faux islands amid the Spratlys out in the middle of the South China Sea, that are the source of all the island-building/Great Wall of Sand/FONOP heartache.

satellite images of Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea
Satellite images of Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea

Woody Island is a PRC military asset that has been under development as an air/radar facility at least since the 1990s. The airport has been in operation as a military airfield since its inception. It’s been outfitted with a range of radars at least since 2008. In 2014 the runway was expanded to handle larger planes, including 737s. A public debate has gone on as to whether Woody Island should be developed as dual use or exclusively as an airbase. Apparently, the decision has been made in favor of dual use since the PRC plans to run a scheduled civilian air service to the airport starting this year.

The military orientation of Woody Island is unambiguous. It’s considered a key element in extending PLAAF jet fighter coverage further into the South China Sea than can be achieved from Hainan Island, and the runaway expansion was widely reported as enabling rotation of more sophisticated military aircraft. Several J-11 fighter jets were apparently rotated into Woody Island late last year without grumbling from the US military and, as Admiral Swift pointed out, the island has been used for exercises involving surface to air missiles. I wouldn’t be surprised if the missiles were temporarily deployed to Woody Island in tandem with the deployment of the J-11 fighters last year.

At press time I saw a report that the PRC is rotating another group of J-11 fighter jets into Woody Island, which would perhaps explain the deployment of surface-to-air missiles beginning February.

Not much new at Woody Island, in other words. So not much new vis a vis “militarization” of the South China Sea, which explains the business as usual response of the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense, and I think the US Navy. Assuming that the missiles were actually deployed beginning February and we were not looking at fuzzy pictures of construction equipment, perhaps the Navy brass perhaps saw little point in making a fuss over PRC military operations in February 2016 that the US had accepted largely without comment in previous year, and hid behind “reported” and “if verified” in preference to calling out the PRC in an escalated confrontation on the issue.

And never dismiss the possibility that the PRC notified the US government of the upcoming deployment and some wiseguy or gal in the Pentagon saw this as a chance to get in a round of China-bashing on the occasion of the ASEAN conference.

This sort of context might have been interesting and useful, but apparently insufficiently alarmist for the western press. In the end, it may turn out the only lasting outcome was to establish in the public domain the routine character of PRC military activities on Woody Island as it transforms into a full-fledged air base and lays the groundwork for eventual declaration of a South China Sea ADIZ.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
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