Israel-based geo-intelligence data provider ImageSat International on May 13 released a satellite photograph of the Chinese-controlled Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑礁) on Twitter. The image gave a clear view of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early-warning aircraft, KQ-200 anti-submarine maritime patrol aircraft and a suspected Changhe Z-18 anti-submarine helicopter, showing that the PLA has advanced its deployment in the South China Sea.
Only last month, China established Xisha District (西沙) on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) and Nansha District (南沙) on the reef, both of which fall under Sansha, a prefecture-level city established in 2012.
It is apparent that Beijing is intensifying its political management and military control over the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島). Taiwan, which relies heavily on the sea line of communication in the region, must be vigilant about the PLA’s expansion in the South China Sea.
The deployment of early-warning aircraft doe not simply imply the establishment of a sea-and-air warning system. China has more important goals: gaining access to long-distance targets and establishing airborne command and control.
While the satellite image did not show warplanes stationed on the reef, an earlier image released by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in June 2016 revealed dehumidifying and air-conditioning facilities installed on the roof of hangars at the end of the airstrip. Clearly, China’s deployment of fighter jets on the reef has long been in the planning.
Stationing the Z-18, which resembles the PLA’s Harbin Z-8 multi-role helicopter, and KQ-200 aircraft on the reef demonstrates the expansion of the PLA’s anti-submarine capabilities.
It also explains why a Type 052D Luyang III-class guided-missile destroyer and the Type 054A Jiangkai II-class missile frigate, forming part of the aircraft carrier Liaoning’s battle group, were equipped with SGJ-311 composite towed array sonar when the group passed through the Miyako Strait on April 10 and sailed to the South China Sea through the Bashi Channel on April 12.
The PLA is pushing to upgrade equipment and enhance training to improve its inadequate anti-submarine capabilities.
As early as 2016, former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force vice admiral Yoji Koda proposed the concept of the “strategic triangle” in the journal Asia Policy. The three vertices of this triangle are Woody Island in the north, Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) in the east and the “iron triangle” of the Spratly Islands in the south formed by Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁), Subi Reef (Jhubi Reef, 渚碧礁) and Fiery Cross Reef, Koda said.
Koda wrote that this triangle would have a huge effect on the US’ and Japan’s strategic planning and “could be a game changer in regional power relations.”
In May last year, three PLA helicopters — two Z-8 or Z-18 type and one Z-9 — were spotted on Woody Island, and a Xian H-6K bomber carried out touch-and-go training on the islet at about the same time.
A satellite image captured by ImageSat in June last year showed that China redeployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems to the island’s north shore; a month later, Shenyang J-11 fighter jets were also spotted stationed on the island. By the end of the month, there were at least four J-10 fighter jets deployed on the island, while a stationary surveillance aerostat was spotted on the northern side of Mischief Reef in November last year.
These show that the PLA is expanding its deployment from Woody Island, the triangle’s northern tip, to Mischief Reef in the southeastern tip and eventually to Fiery Cross Reef in the west.
Beijing is applying “salami-slicing tactics” with the aim of demarcating its own air defense identification zone in the South China Sea and subsequently building up interception capabilities.
This is what Koda refers to as the “game changer.”
This does not mark the end of China’s military expansion. The KQ-200 aircraft stationed on Fiery Cross Reef represent the PLA’s long-range underwater combat capabilities, aimed further west into the Indian Ocean.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the Republic of China Naval Academy and a former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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