The Strategic Significance of China's Woody Island Power Play
China's recent deployments on Woody Island carry a larger strategic significance. Aside from being unmistakable signs of militarization, Beijing's actions highlight both the effectiveness of its strategic expansion into the South China Sea, and the dilemma Washington and others face in crafting a response.
Reports last week that China has sent J-11 fighter jets to Woody Island came less than ten days after satellite images revealed two batteries of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles had been deployed to the disputed island. While provocative, neither deployment is entirely unprecedented. Rather, they represent the latest in a series of incremental steps that Beijing has taken to bolster its strategic foothold in the Paracel Islands.
Since late 2012, China has been steadily upgrading Woody Island's port facilities, radars and military infrastructure. Last year, China finished a brand new airstrip to support large-scale combat operations, and constructed hangars to service and protect forward-based aircraft. Following the U.S. Navy's first freedom-of-navigation operation (FONOP) in October 2015—which took place roughly 700km away in the Spratly Islands—China briefly deployed J-11 fighters to Woody Island, signaling its ability to use the outpost for aerial power projection.
Less than two weeks after America's second FONOP—this time in the Paracel archipelago, about 120km from Woody Island—Beijing reinforced its presence by deploying the HQ-9s, which can strike incoming missiles and aircraft up to 200km away. While this was the third time HQ-9s had been placed on the island, it was their first operational deployment outside of military exercises. Now the J-11s are back, marking what is probably the first time ever that fighter jets and missiles have been simultaneously deployed.
As many have pointed out, these actions show how China is methodically building an anti-access zone to deter the United States and others from operating military forces around the Paracel Islands. They also reveal three broader aspects of China's effective strategic expansion into the South China Sea.
First, Beijing is using American FONOPs as a justification to carry out specific acts of tactical militarization, even as it expands its strategic presence independent of U.S. actions. It's by no means a coincidence that the last two FONOPs were quickly followed by an increase in China's military footprint on Woody Island. This shows Chinese officials have been serious when warning that U.S. naval intrusions might lead Beijing to “strengthen and hasten the build up of relevant capabilities” for island self-defense. However, this tit-for-tat dynamic is only part of the story.
China was building airstrips and other military facilities long before the White House agreed to launch FONOPs. Moreover, the timing of Chinese missile and fighter deployments has not always coincided with perceived American provocations. Beijing's motives, in other words, run deeper than reaction, and have mainly been about ongoing expansion. Of course, at a more fundamental strategic level an action-reaction cycle is becoming entrenched between the United States and China in which elements of the security dilemma loom ever larger. Yet, as far as operational dynamics in the South China Sea are concerned, Beijing is both undeterred by American FONOPs and willing to exploit them as opportunities to step up military deployments.
Second, the highly calibrated way that China is enhancing its strategic and military presence on Woody Island makes it difficult for others to effectively respond. This, to a degree, is Beijing's “salami-slicing” in action. Were China to have deployed military assets in a bolder, faster or more forceful manner, it's possible that Washington and other maritime players would have responded with greater resolve. More importantly, had China reacted to American FONOPs with intimidating aerial and naval intercepts, like those which triggered dangerous incidents in 2013 and 2014, the region would have been far more alarmed—and the risk of miscalculation and conflict significantly increased.