A Chinese fighter jet has been spotted on a Chinese-controlled island in the South China Sea for the first time in a year, a U.S. think tank said Thursday as President Donald Trump met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the J-11 fighter jet was visible on a runway in a satellite photo taken March 29 of Woody Island in the disputed waterway’s Paracel chain. More fighters were believed to be in hangers nearby.
“This is the first time we (or any other outlet, to the best of our knowledge) have seen fighter jets on Woody Island in nearly a year — there was a deployment in April 2016, but we had not seen any since,” said Conor Cronin, a research associate with the AMTI. “We think it’s likely, but cannot say for certain, that there are other J-11s in the hangars nearby.”
Aside from the earlier fighter deployments, China has maintained HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island for more than a year and has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles to the island on at least one occasion.
News of the latest fighter deployment emerged as Trump met with Xi at the U.S. leader’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. In their first meeting, the two were expected to discuss U.S. claims that China has been militarizing its outposts in the South China Sea.
Washington says Beijing has continued to bolster its military capabilities in the waters as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
It has built seven man-made islets in the hotly contested Spratlys, with three boasting military-grade airfields — despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further militarize them.
AMTI said in late March that major construction at the three largest of China’s man-made islands in the Spratlys was nearly finished, allowing Beijing to deploy fighter jets and mobile missile launchers to the area at any time.
All three islands boast hangers that can accommodate 24 fighter jets and four larger planes, including surveillance, transport, refueling or bomber aircraft. Hardened shelters with retractable roofs for mobile missile launchers have also been built on the islands.
China has also constructed significant radar and sensor arrays on all three islands, positioning them close to point defense structures to provide protection against air or missile strikes.
Experts have said the Woody Island missile and fighter deployments could be a blueprint for how China will proceed with its Spratly facilities.
“Building a network of outposts in the South China Sea is a strategically assertive way to tilt the regional military balance in China’s favor,” according to a report released last year by Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank titled “Shifting Waters: China’s New Passive Assertiveness in Asian Maritime Security.”
“These strategic outposts will permit Beijing to enhance its power projection capabilities and establish anti-access zones right across the South China Sea,” the report said. “China will be able to extend the range and endurance of military and coast guard patrols; forward deploy air force, navy, and coast guard assets; and conduct aerial patrols over disputed waters, possibly in support of a future ADIZ (aid defense identification zone).”
The same report also said that a combination of ground-based radar facilities, air defenses, anti-ship missiles and forward-based fighter jets would facilitate the development of “mini-denial zones” extending southward from China’s Hainan Island that it could use to effectively chase the U.S. Navy out of the waterway.