Beijing’s Other South China Sea Buildup
While China’s expansion of its seven outposts in the Spratly Islands has dominated headlines since large-scale dredging began at the end of 2013, efforts to upgrade its capabilities in the Paracels farther north have received relatively little attention. But the island chain plays a key role in China’s goal of establishing surveillance and power projection capabilities throughout the South China Sea. To this end, Beijing has undertaken substantial upgrades of its military infrastructure in the Paracels.
China occupies 20 outposts in the Paracels. Three of these now have protected harbors capable of hosting large numbers of naval and civilian vessels. Four others boast smaller harbors, with a fifth under construction at Drummond Island. Five of the islands contain helipads, with Duncan Island housing a full helicopter base. The largest of the Paracels, Woody Island, sports an airstrip, hangars, and a deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries.
Woody Island, which has expanded to incorporate its small neighbor Rocky Island, is China’s main military base in the Paracels as well as the official administrative capital of the three island chains it claims in the South China Sea (the Xisha or Paracel Islands, Nansha or Spratly Islands, and Zhongsha, encompassing Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal). In the last few years, China has undertaken substantial land reclamation to expand Woody Island and construct new facilities. It has substantially upgraded the two sheltered harbors on the island, and upgraded its air base to include 16 small hangars for combat aircraft as well as four larger hangars.
Most worrying, China in early 2016 deployed HQ-9 surface to air missiles to the island. Despite reports in July that the missile platforms had departed, they still appear to be deployed along the north shore of Woody. China also test-fired anti-ship cruise missile from the island in mid-2016, but it is unclear whether or not those platforms remain. Since 2013, Woody Island has been used as a blueprint for upgrades at China’s three largest bases in the Spratlys, on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs. As such, it is reasonable to assume that those bases could soon host capabilities similar to those on Woody Island, including surface-to-air missiles and cruise missiles.
Palm and Duncan Islands, which have been connected by a land bridge, constitute China’s second most advanced military base in the Paracels. The area between the two islands has been dredged and turned into a substantial harbor. In addition, the island sports a helicopter base including hangars and eight helipads. As others have surmised, this base could play an important role in Chinese anti-submarine warfare efforts.
Tree Island has seen substantial upgrades in the last year. China has dredged a new harbor off the southwest end of the islet, considerably expanding its land area in the process. New construction on this expanded area includes radomes and large buried structures similar to those previously built at Woody Island and Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs.
China has reclaimed new land at the southern end of North Island and has begun to construct new facilities on it. The presence of a cement plant suggests construction will continue and the island might come to sport major military infrastructure like those elsewhere in the Paracels. China also built a land bridge to neighboring Middle Island, but this was washed out by Typhoon Sarika in October 2016. It is unclear whether China has abandoned the effort or will rebuild the bridge in an effort to turn the two islets into a single feature.
Triton Island is one of four of the Paracels that appear to have already contained small harbors prior to the current construction blitz. But its facilities have been expanded recently, including with a new helipad. The island is also unique for sporting a large Chinese flag and characters, both visible from satellite or air surveillance, declaring China’s sovereignty over the Paracels.