China Deploys Fighter Jets at Disputed Island in South China Sea, as US Allies Conduct Naval Exercises

June 24, 2019 Updated: June 24, 2019

Satellite images recently revealed that China has deployed at least four of its J-10 mainstay fighter jets on the contested territory of Woody Island in the South China Sea.

Around the same time, warships from the United States, Japan, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines performed naval drills separately or jointly in the same waters, valued for fisheries and energy reserves.

Over the past decade, the Chinese regime has used aggressive tactics to defend its territorial claims in the region, including by building artificial islands with military bases, alarming nearby countries. The territories are also claimed by Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, among others.

J-10s on Woody Island

ImageSat International, an Israeli high-resolution satellite image supplier, posted onto Twitter an image taken on June 19, showing four Chinese J-10 fighters parked on a tarmac in plain sight, on the disputed territory of Woody Island.

Named Yongxing in Chinese, and Phu Lam in Vietnamese, it is the largest island within the Paracel Islands, and claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

“There could be more in the hangars,” Ben Ho, an airpower analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told British media Daily Mail on June 20.

Ho confirmed that the aircrafts are J-10s based on their canard (a projection attached to aircraft to offer stability) design and delta wing configuration.

He added that the lack of external fuel tanks on the aircraft “could mean that the plan is for them to stay on the island longer than usual.”

Meanwhile, experts said that the open display was likely intentional. “They [Chinese regime] want you to notice them [J-10s]. Otherwise they would be parked in the hangars,” Peter Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer and fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, told CNN on June 21.

Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, also told CNN that the J-10s were parked on the tarmac because the Chinese regime wants to “demonstrate it is their territory and they can put military aircraft there whenever they want.”

The Chinese Air Force currently has about 200 J-10s.

A Chinese J-10 aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force takes part in the combined exercise ”Falcon Strike 2015” at the Wing 1 Korat air base in Korat on November 24, 2015. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Naval Drills

Recently, the United States and its allies have also conducted naval drills in the South China Sea.

On June 19 and 20, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) sent out its JS Izumo helicopter carrier (DH-183), along with its destroyers JS Murasame (DD-101) and JS Akebono (DD-108), joined the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, to conduct joint military exercises.

According to a JMSDF statement, the exercises were for training different tactics on the ocean.

From June 10 to 12, JMSDF and U.S. Navy also performed similar joint military exercises in the same region. Japan Times quoted Japan’s Defense Ministry as saying that the exercises were focused on combat training in the water and in the air.

Those exercises had come just a day after China’s aircraft carrier the Liaoning had passed through the Miyako Strait into the Pacific. Located between two Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa, it is one of the few international waterways where Chinese ships are allowed to access the Pacific Ocean from the East China Sea.

“The [U.S.] Navy and JMSDF regularly fly, sail, and operate together with other allies and partners to promote security and stability throughout the region,” the U.S. navy said in a statement on June 12.

On June 17, the JMSDF also performed joint exercises with Vietnam’s navy off the southeastern coast of Vietnam.

The JMSDF stated that the drill involved tactical maneuvers, search-and-rescue drills, and communications training.

From June 13 to 15, the JMSDF also conducted a joint drill with the Royal Canadian Navy in the South China Sea.

While these countries did not openly mention China’s aggression in the region, the recent flurry in naval activity acts to bolster their defenses as the Chinese regime continues to assert their military presence.

US Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) prepare to hit the beach during the amphibious landing exercises as part of the annual joint US-Philippines military exercise on the shores of San Antonio town, facing the South China sea, Zambales province on April 11, 2019. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Freedom of Navigation

Since U.S. President Donald Trump came into office, U.S. Navy warships have traversed the South China Sea at least 11 times to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP).

The U.S. operations are aimed at challenging what it sees as Chinese activity limiting freedom of movement in the strategic waterway.

By comparison, Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama sent Navy ships to the South China Sea six times during his eight-year term that ended in 2017.

“My understanding of the current administration in the U.S. is that there’s a clear consensus that the Obama administration didn’t do enough of the FONOPs and that the increased number and breadth of the FONOPs is representative of a general shift in Washington, not just a Trump administration shift, that it was important to increase the number of FONOPs to push back against the Chinese,” Voice of America quoted Stephen Nagy, a senior international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, as saying.

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