A newly emerged satellite image shows a Chinese air defense facility on the Paracel Islands, which analysts say indicates the People’s Liberation Army now has surface-to-air missiles at the ready permanently in both the contested archipelagos in the South China Sea.
The Paracel Islands, or Xisha Islands in Chinese, are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan but occupied entirely by Beijing since 1974 after the Chinese Navy defeated the then South Vietnamese Navy in a brief but bloody sea battle.
China also occupies some of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands in Chinese) that are claimed by some other neighboring countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
A satellite image of what appears to be a newly-built but completed missile battalion on Woody Island within the Paracel group has surfaced this week on Twitter.
The image – credited to Maxar Technologies, a space technology firm, and allegedly 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, showing what appears to be surface-to-air missiles (SAM) launchers inside.
ImageSat International, a space intelligence company, first detected the appearance, removal and reappearance of HQ-9 SAM launchers on Woody Island in 2016.
But the new satellite image, which RFA could not verify independently, shows that the PLA has completed building an air defense base resembling those on the three artificial islands that it has fully militarized.
Similar structures with retractable roofs were detected on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Tom Shugart, adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote on Twitter.
They are permanent facilities that can house long-range missile batteries that would expand China’s reach in disputed areas.
Militarized artificial islands
A Getty Images photographer in October obtained access to flights near a number of reefs and rocks that China has reclaimed and turned into military bases.
His photos provide extensive details of People's Liberation Army (PLA) structures in the Spratly archipelago.
But up to now, the extent of militarization in the Paracels has not been fully documented as foreign journalists are not permitted to access the archipelago that China occupies in its entirety.
Some analysts said the alleged missile base on Woody Island is consistent with their research.
“The PLA has maintained air defense capabilities on 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 development on the Paracels, said Unit 92155 “very likely performs 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 feature that China occupies 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 – though these are areas contested by several other governments in the region.