South China Sea: Chinese fighter jets spotted on Woody Island
China has deployed fighter jets to Woody Island in the South China Sea, increasing military hardware on an island at the centre of tensions in the disputed region, according to a US media source.
Satellite imagery from April 7, published by Fox News, and verified by US defence officials on Tuesday showed two Chinese Shenyang J-11 fighter jets on Woody Island.
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There is also a fire control radar system on the island, which makes an HQ-9 surface-to-air missile, first reported in February, operational, Fox News reported.
The discovery of the jets and fire control system on Woody Island come as US Defence Secretary Ash Carter visits the Philippines. Mr Carter’s trip highlights growing US military relations with a crucial Southeast Asian ally s China assertively pursues its claims in the South China Sea.
Ships of Chinese Coast Guard in the South China Sea. Photo: Supplied
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the waters, through which about $US5 trillion ($6.5 trillion) in trade is shipped every year.
Carter’s visit comes as the two countries conduct joint military exercises and on the heels of an agreement that allows a US military presence at five Philippine bases, one of which Carter plans to visit on this week’s trip.
While the initial agreement allows for five bases, Carter told reporters while on the way to the Philippines that there would be more in future.
Defence officials from the Philippines and Vietnam will also meet this week to explore possible joint exercises and navy patrols, military sources said, shoring up a new alliance between states locked in maritime rows with China.
China’s J-11 Shenyang fighter. Photo: WikiCommons
The US defence chief’s visit also takes place weeks before a ruling is expected on an arbitration case the Philippines has brought against China in The Hague.
The United States believes that whatever the tribunal’s decision, it will be binding on both China and the Philippines, but China has refused to recognise the case and says all disputes should be resolved through bilateral talks.
Satellite images of Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea showing a surface-to-air missile system . Photo: ImageSat International
“The trip carries greater weight because of the impending arbitration ruling,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Centre for a New American Security.
“Secretary Carter’s task is to reassure the Philippines that it has US security backing for a rules-based approach to settling disputes.”
The United States has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” patrols in the area, sailing within 12-nautical mile territorial limits around disputed islands controlled by China to underscore its right to navigate the seas.
Those patrols have drawn sharp rebukes from China, but US officials have said the United States will continue to challenge what it considers unfounded maritime claims.
US officials say the Navy is carrying out more aggressive patrols in the region, sailing close to disputed features.
“They’re sailing within 13, 14, 15 miles, without dipping into the 12-mile limit, and the Chinese have definitely noticed,” said one US official who was not authorised to speak publicly.
The official said Chinese ships were now shadowing every US ship in the region, and routine ship-to-ship communications had become testier and sometimes unprofessional.
This year the United States is providing the Philippines with about $US40 million as part of the five-year, $US425 million Maritime Security Initiative (MSI).
That money will be used to train staff at the Philippines National Coast Watch Center, better enable the sharing of classified information between the US and the Philippines, and buy better sensors for Philippine Navy patrol ships.
Swift progress on spending this year’s MSI funds would enable the Pentagon to ask Congress for “multiples more” in funding for future years and possibly expand spending to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand, said Ernest Bower, chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
In the Philippines, Carter will observe annual US-Filipino military exercises known as Balikatan. Around 4400 U.S. troops are participating in the exercises, in addition to 3000 Filipino troops.
A small contingent of Australian forces are also taking part.
Reuter, Fairfax Media