A naval confrontation between the China and the US remains “highly unlikely” despite Beijing’s deployment of an advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAM) to an island chain in the South China Sea, says a Wednesday assessment by global insights firm IHS.
The stationing of a Chinese fourth-generation SAM system on Woody Island in the South China Sea’s Paracel Island chain is most likely a response to stepped-up US naval activity in the area, according to Omar Hamid, head of Asia analysis for IHS Country Risk. “But, a naval confrontation between China and the US remains highly unlikely,” Hamid said. “China’s approach to the disputed islands continues to be the gradual militarization of the territory under its control, and the creation of a situation of domain awareness and area denial for other regional claimants.”
US officials say satellite imagery shows that China has deployed its HQ-9 air defense system, which is closely patterned after Russia’s S-300 missile system. The HQ-9 has a range of 125 miles, posing a threat to military and civilian aircraft flying within its kill zone.
Hamid says the deployment follows recent activity in the same part of the Paracels, where on Jan. 30, a US guided missile destroyer sailed close to Triton Island. The move followed President Barack Obama’s announcement that US warships would continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the region, Hamid said.
Neil Ashdown, the deputy editor of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review says in a separate analysis that China’s deployment signals “a significant military escalation” in the area. “This leapfrogs steps such as deploying shorter-range systems and increasing the tempo of visits by military aircraft to the islands,” Ashdown said. “However, the deployment is still less significant from a military perspective for the US and others than the deployment of systems such as the YJ-type anti-ship cruise missiles.”
Ashdown speculates the missiles are intended to send a message to the US and other South China Sea claimants following freedom of navigation operations conducted by US naval vessels in October 2015 and January 2016.”
“The Paracel Islands are closer to mainland China than the Spratly Islands, which Beijing may see as making the deployment less provocative,” the analyst added. “While significant land reclamation work has taken place on Woody Island, it is also indisputably an island for legal purposes, meaning its status is less contentious than some of the features that China has expanded in the Spratlys, for example Subi Reef, which was submerged at high tide before the reclamation work took place.”