SOUTH CHINA SEA – In a blatant move China has again sent fighter jets to a disputed island where earlier this month it redeployed surface-to-air missiles and appears to be building a sophisticated radar system, according to U.S. officials.
Chinese Shenyang J-11s (“Flanker”) and Xian JH-7s (“Flounder”) have been seen by U.S. intelligence on Woody Island in the past few days, the same island where Fox News reported exclusively last week that China had sent two batteries of surface-to-air missiles while President Obama was hosting 10 Southeast Asian leaders in Palm Springs.
On Wednesday, Nina Hachigian, the U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, told reporters, “We are very concerned that these actions are increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive.”
The fighter jet sightings follow the placement of surface-to-air missiles on the 210-hectare island, known in Chinese as Yongxing and called Phu Lam by Vietnam, which also claims it.
Analysts express more alarm about the construction of a high frequency radar facility on the island, 400 kilometers southeast of China’s Hainan island.
The radar would bolster Beijing’s ability to monitor surface and air traffic in the tense waters and â€œalong with the development of new runways and air defense capabilities, they speak to a long-term anti-access strategy by China â€“ one that would see it establish effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the South China Sea,” according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
After Chinese state media last November published images of J-11 fighter jets on Woody Island, the U.S. Navy sailed a guided-missile destroyer past another contested island in the South China Sea and flew B-52 bombers and sailed another warship in the region for a â€œfreedom of navigationâ€ exercise.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, visiting the U.S. State Department on Tuesday, said he was supposed to visit the Pentagon Tuesday, but the visit was canceled. It was not immediately clear which side canceled the visit. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said a “scheduling conflict” prevented the meeting,
Minister Wang Yi said he hoped that such flights and patrols by U.S. forces near the contested islands would cease.
“Regrettably, there are missiles, fighter aircraft, guns, artillery and other things that have been placed in the South China Sea, and this is of great concern to everyone who transits and relies on the South China Sea for peaceful trade, commerce and use,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, standing alongside Yi, told reporters.
Kerry said, however, not only China but Vietnam and others were also responsible for creating an â€œescalatory cycleâ€ of reclamation and militarization in the disputed waters.
Earlier Tuesday, the head of the U.S. militaryâ€™s Pacific Command, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was less diplomatic, bluntly blaming Beijing for â€œclearly militarizingâ€ the South China Sea.
“Youâ€™d have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise,” Admiral Harry Harris told senators.
Asked by lawmakers about the strategic goal of China’s military buildup in the region, Harris replied: “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia.”
Woody Island is the largest island in the Paracel chain of islands in the South China Sea, and has had a runway since the early 1990s. It lies 250 miles southeast of a major Chinese submarine base on Hainan Island. China has claimed Woody Island since the 1950s, but it is contested by Taiwan and Vietnam.
In the last two years, China has created 3,000 acres of artificial islands atop reefs hundreds of miles south of Woody Island in the Spratly chain of islands. One runway was tested in January, when two commercial airliners landed at Fiery Cross Reef.