China puts missile bases on disputed South China Sea islands, analysts say — Radio Free Asia

A newly emerged satellite image shows a Chinese air defense facility in the Paracel Islands, which analysts say means the People’s Liberation Army now has surface-to-air missiles at the ready permanently in both disputed archipelagos in the South China Sea.

The Paracel Islands, or Xisha Islands in Chinese, are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, but have been fully occupied by Beijing since 1974, after the Chinese navy defeated the then-South Vietnamese navy in a brief but bloody naval battle.

China also occupies some of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands in Chinese), which are claimed by some other neighboring countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

ONE satellite image of what appears to be a newly built but completed missile battalion at Woody Island within the Paracel group has surfaced this week on Twitter.

The photo – credited to Maxar Technologies, a space technology company, and reportedly taken last April – shows four buildings with retractable roofs at a site on Woody (Yongxing in Chinese), the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

One of the buildings has its roof partially open, revealing what appear to be surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch pads inside.

ImageSat International, a space intelligence firm, first detected the appearance, removal and reappearance of HQ-9 SAM missiles on Woody Island in 2016.

But the new satellite image, which the RFA could not independently verify, shows that the PLA has completed the construction of an air defense base similar to those on the three artificial islands that it has fully militarized.

Similar structures with retractable roofs were discovered on the Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, wrote Tom Shugart, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security Twitter.

They are permanent facilities that can house long-range missile batteries that would extend China’s reach into disputed areas.

Militarized artificial islands

In October, a Getty Images photographer was granted access to flights near a series of reefs and rocks that China has reclaimed and turned into military bases.

His images provide extensive detail of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) structures in the Spratly archipelago.

But until now, the extent of militarization in the Paracels has not been fully documented, as foreign journalists are not permitted to access the archipelago, which China occupies in its entirety.

Woody Island.jpg
A Dec. 14, 2020 satellite image of Woody Island, where China was carrying out construction work. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

Some analysts said the alleged missile base at Woody Island is consistent with their research.

“The PLA has maintained air defense capabilities at Woody Island for many years,” said Zoe Haver, an analyst at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.

“Some of these capabilities likely fall under a Woody Island-based battalion of unit 92155, which is very likely an air defense brigade within the naval aviation branch of the PLA Navy,” Haver told RFA.

The analyst who had done intensive research on China’s developments in the Paracels, said unit 92155 “very likely performing air defense duties on Woody Island.”

The Chinese HQ-9 SAM system has an operational range of 200 kilometers (124 miles) at high altitude and can pose a serious threat to military and civilian air traffic.

Woody Island is the largest natural land area claimed by China in the South China Sea.

The island serves as the headquarters for Sansha City, which China established in 2012 to administer all the islands it claims in the South China Sea and their surrounding waters – although these are areas contested by several other governments in the region.

William

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