Satellite imagery, confirmed today by US and Taiwanese officials, appears to show two batteries of HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers on Woody Island, a Chinese occupied feature in Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea.
The HQ-9 is a Chinese-made mobile air defence system, comparable to Russia’s S-300 SAM, with a reported range of 125 miles.
It is not clear whether this is a temporary detachment or an open-ended deployment, which would require more supporting infrastructure than has yet been observed on Woody Island. However, assuming the HQ-9 becomes operational it would provide coverage for Woody Island and the whole Paracel group, as well as the southern approaches to Hainan island, where China’s main South China Sea naval bases are located.
Beginning last November, China began deploying J-11 fighters on detachment to Woody Island. So, from a military point of view, it should come as no surprise that China has chosen Woody island to project its air defence further out into the South China Sea.
This marks a step up the ladder to China’s progressive “militarisation” of the South China Sea, but it is also calibrated. If China’s long-term strategy seeks military pre-dominance in the South China Sea, one near-term motivation for the missile deployment could be to deter the US from mounting an overflight operation close to the Paracel Islands.