A Chinese HQ-9 launcher on display on the Chinese mainland. Source: Wikimedia
Satellite imagery, confirmed by the USA and Taiwan, suggests two batteries of eight HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers have been stationed on Woody Island, a Chinese-occupied rocky outcrop in the South China Sea’s Paracel Islands.
Each battery consists of four rocket launchers and two control vehicles.
The Chinese mobile air defence system, similar to Russia’s S-300 SAM, has an approximate range of 200km.
Analysts say a permanent deployment would require more supporting infrastructure than can be seen on Woody Island but an operational HQ-9 could provide coverage for the whole Paracel group and waters approaching the giant island of Hainan, which hosts China’s main South China Sea naval bases.
Last November, China began deploying J-11 fighters to Woody Island so it was seen as an obvious next step to bolster the island with air defence.
The deployment signals another step in China’s “militarisation” of the South China Sea and could show the Beijing wants to deter US air reconnaissance.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the reports were a western invention, while defending “the limited and necessary self-defence facilities” on islands where Chinese service personnel were stationed, saying it was “consistent with the right for self-preservation and self-protection…. under the international law”.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was critical of Beijing’s increasing “militarisation”, adding that it was a “serious concern”.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said there were “serious concerns” about Beijing’s “unilateral move to change the status quo” in the sea adding that Tokyo “cannot accept this fact”.
China says its land reclamation work in the region is legal and for civilian purposes.
The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes said of the missile deployment: “[It] is a clear escalation, but it is not a surprise. Nor is it China’s first deployment of advanced military technology to Woody Island. Last November, photos appeared on the internet of Chinese J-11 fighter jets landing on the newly enlarged runway there.
Sending the missile batteries now could be a warning to Vietnam, or a response to the US Navy, which sailed a missile destroyer past Woody Island at the end of January.”
The news came while Asean leaders were meeting US President Barack Obama at Sunnylands in California, partly to discuss the South China Sea dispute and the deployment may have been a reminder from Beijing of its dominance in the region.
Woody is the largest in the Paracel islands with a population of at least 1,000 people, mostly troops, construction workers and fishermen.
In 1956, China established a permanent presence on the island, which it calls Yongxing. In 2012, China established the Sansha government office on Woody to administer the South China Sea. The island, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, has a hospital, library, airport, school and mobile phone coverage.