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Asian Escalation: Why China Picked Woody Island For Its First South China Sea Missiles

Michael Auslin, Ph.D

(Forbes) – Just weeks after a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near an island claimed by China in the South China Sea, the U.S. Government announced that Beijing has emplaced advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) on the largest island in the same group. Washington and Asian nations are now decrying Beijing’s militarization of the region’s waters. Yet there is good reason that China picked isolated Woody Island as the first place it deployed such defenses. It is another step in a long campaign to ensure that China develops an unparalleled military position in the vital waters of Southeast Asia.

Woody Island is part of the Paracel Islands group. It lies about 250 miles southeast of Hainan Island, which contains one of China’s main submarine bases. Beijing has controlled Woody Island since 1956, although both Taiwan and Vietnam both claim it.

Woody Island is no natural preserve, however. It has long had a port, and China built a runway and airfield on the island a quarter-century ago, in 1990. Late last year, it also deployed advanced J-11 fighter jets, giving it the ability to control the airspace around the Paracels, especially when supported by fighters from Hainan, and deeper into the South China Sea by about another 200 miles (360 km). From China’s strategic perspective, emplacing advanced HQ-9 SAMs is a defensive measure, protecting whatever planes and ships are on the island. This is how Beijing can claim that it is simply fortifying long-held Chinese territory for purely defensive reasons.

Unlike the better-known Spratly Islands, where China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, all claim sovereignty, the Paracels are disputed primarily only by China and Vietnam, making them seem less a potential flashpoint. For Beijing to have put advanced missiles on the newly reclaimed islands it has made in the more congested Spratlys, such as Fiery Cross Reef or Subi Reef, would likely have been seen as far more destabilizing and aggressive. What Beijing wants to do is slowly normalize the idea of its having advanced defenses on all of its possessions.

Perhaps just as importantly, China appears comfortable in escalating the military competition in Southeast Asia. It refuses to back down in response to the hesitant U.S. moves to to push back again its growing presence, such as the two “freedom of navigation” operations conducted by the U.S. Navy over the past three months. The missiles on Woody Island not only defend China’s base there, but can also potentially threaten U.S. military flights in airspace over 100 miles from the island. China could easily follow up this move by putting in anti-ship missiles to target U.S. Navy vessels.

Woody Island, then, is a perfect stepping-stone for Beijing to methodically extend its network of militarized bases throughout its claimed territories in the South China Sea, and possibly beyond. If China places SAMs on its Spratly Islands possessions, joining the almost certain deployment of jet fighters on the larger islands, it will come close to covering the entire South China Sea, putting at risk freedom of overflight. Since no neighboring country can match its buildup or forcibly eject it from its new bases, China is betting that its moves will result in the neutralization of opposition over time. Beijing’s goal is to get all other capitals in the region to accept its predominant position in an area vital to the global economy, and which is transited by tens of thousands of ships per year and crossed by dozens of international air flights per day.

The result is a region whose balance of power is rapidly shifting. We are witnessing the creation of an environment where one nation may soon have the strength to assert its own claims over common waterways and airways, should it ever desire to do so. That would be a serious blow to U.S. strategy, which since the end of World War II has sought to prevent the emergence of any one dominant power in Asia.

Should China achieve its goals, the result will not necessarily be war. Rather, it may well be the tacit recognition by all countries in one of the world’s most vital regions that might makes right, and that rules are determined simply by the strongest power. It is another mark of the growing global disorder that threatens the liberal international system

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