China has for the first time confirmed the deployment of fighter jets to Woody Island in the disputed South China Sea, state media have reported.
Citing footage aired by the official state broadcaster, the Global Times reported late Friday that China had sent J-11B fighters to the island in the contested Paracel chain.
While fighter jets had been spotted on the island in 2016 and in April this year, the footage was the first time Beijing had confirmed the deployments. It was aired by China Central Television (CCTV) on Wednesday as part of a report on the air force’s expanding capabilities.
Woody Island, known in China as Yongxing Island, is the largest of the Paracels, which Beijing calls the Xisha Islands. It is the seat of the Sansha city government — covering several island groups and undersea atolls — in southern China’s Hainan province.
The footage showed fighters landing, taking off and conducting drills, apparently over the South China Sea. It also showed at least one fighter “entering a sealed hangar,” the Global Times said.
China has apparently been reluctant to station its fighters on the islands because the craft are especially susceptible to the elements.
But, the report said, “the thermostabilized hangar boosts the jet fighters’ durability and resistance to the island’s humidity and high temperatures,” making longer-term deployments a possibility.
“The special hangar helps to realize regular deployment of fighter jets in the Xisha Islands,” the Global Times quoted commentator Song Zhongping as saying.
“Other islands in China could also use such aircraft hangars and China’s overall control of air and sea in the South China Sea would be greatly improved as well,” Song added.
Quoting CCTV, the Global Times called Woody Island, with its 3-km-long runway, “an important dual-use airport in the South China Sea area.”
Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which $3 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
Aside from the earlier fighter deployments, China has maintained HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island and has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles there on at least one occasion.
It has also 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.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said in late March that major construction at the three 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.