TAIWAN — China’s deployment of the more advanced J-11BH/BHS fighter aircraft to Woody Island, revealed in photographs released via online Chinese-language media websites in late October, underscores how seriously the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is taking its claims to the South China Sea.
The placement of advanced fighter aircraft on Woody Island, located in the Parcel archipelago, extends China’s fighter aircraft reach an additional 360 kilometers into the South China Sea from the PLAN air base located on Hainan Island.
The new location could prove troublesome for US surveillance aircraft, such as the EP-3 Aries and the P-8 Poseidon, that fly through the area on a regular basis. In 2001, a collision between a Chinese fighter and EP-3 resulted in the death of a Chinese fighter pilot and the forced landing of the EP-3 on Hainan Island. In 2014, a Chinese fighter harassed a P-8 in the vicinity of Woody Island, which followed with a strong verbal protest by the Pentagon.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Chinese are demonstrating to the US, other claimants to the South China Sea and their domestic audience that they intend to protect their sovereignty.
Farther south of Woody Island, China is building air bases and port facilities in the Spratly Islands. These include Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross. All three have undergone significant land reclamation efforts and expansion over the past two years.
“As China completes the facilities on its reclaimed features in the Spratlys, including air strips, hangars and fuel storage tanks, it will be able to base, or at least rotate on a regular basis, fighters in the South China Sea,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
Some observers minimize the importance of military facilities and operational capabilities on China’s various claimed features, rocks and islands in the South China Sea, but Paul Giarra, president of Global Strategies and Transformation, disagrees.
“Chinese military aircraft and missile batteries spread throughout the South China Sea serve a number of important functions, all to the disadvantage of the United States and our friends and allies [including Taiwan] who have a stake in freedom of seas, the rule of law and their own territorial claims,” he said.
Giarra said this strategy entails six factors:
• They fortify China’s maritime approaches.
• They militarize China’s political claims, making it much more difficult to challenge them legally.
• They make it operationally much more difficult to dislodge China from these positions.
• These individual military capabilities are part of a larger fixed and mobile Chinese military network, not only throughout the South China Sea, but on the Chinese mainland.
• Military airfields throughout the South China Sea extend dramatically the operational range of land-based military aircraft, which can recover on these fields, refuel and swap crews in shuttle missions that change the military equation considerably.
• These maritime facilities push out the limits of the military’s footprint. This extends the boundaries of China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) envelope, and brings a considerably larger portion of China’s maritime approaches under the military’s firing arcs.
Taiwan-based Alexander Huang, chairman, Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies, said that it might be too early to focus on military implications. Citing the problems Taiwan’s Air Force faces with the operational and seasonal deployment of fighter aircraft at Magong Air Force Base, Penghu Island, Huang said weather and the salty sea air makes deployment on off-shore islands difficult for advanced fighter aircraft.
“If they intend to place J-11 on Woody Island around the year, it would be an ‘all-weather’ test to the airframe, parts and combat systems onboard before I do military implication analysis.”
Glaser agrees. “My understanding is that fighters are likely only to be deployed for short time frames in the Spratlys – the salty sea air would cause havoc to the aircraft over long periods.”
Giarra suggested that China's actions in the South China Sea mirror what the United States and its allies in the region should be doing: “expanding operational perimeters, distributing significant firepower along operational peripheries, and combining the psychological and legal elements of modern warfare in an integrated campaign.”