East Asia Correspondent – David McDonald
U.S. Highly Likely To Conduct Another Patrol In South China Sea
It is highly likely that the U.S. will conduct another freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea in response to the PLA deploying more fighter jets to Woody Island. However, it is highly unlikely that the Stennis task group will conduct the patrol. China’s recent jet deployments, previous jet deployments, and China’s building of air bases in the Spratly Islands support these estimates.
As of 12 April, a news source released satellite imagery of Shenyang J-11 fighter jets on Woody Island. Recent analysis estimates that China deployed over 320 aircraft in the region. 100 of the over 320 aircraft deployed are J-11s, which are similar to the F/A-18 Hornet.[i] China’s maritime expansion does not end there. In 2015, China began building air bases and ports on Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef, all in the Spratly Islands.[ii]
The aircraft deployments to Woody Island are not China’s first. In 2015, China deployed Shenyang J-11s and Xian JH-7s to Woody Island, China followed these deployments by placing HQ-9 surface to air missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles on the island.[iii]
In response to recent deployments, the U.S. announced that it would conduct a third patrol in the South China Sea. The exact ship the U.S. plans to send is unknown, but they stated that, despite its presence in the region, the USS Stennis carrier task force would not conduct the patrol. U.S. naval officials claim that the ship will be smaller and will travel within twelve nautical miles of Mischief Reef, which China has built up since 2014.[iv] Additionally, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will be visiting the region to conduct talks with the Philippines about bilateral military cooperation, tensions in the South China Sea, and a base-sharing agreement. The agreement will allow the U.S. to station troops in the Philippines for the first time in over 20 years. The U.S. will also provide surveillance blimps to survey the Philippine’s South China Sea claims.[v]
Even though Woody Island’s runway has been operational since 1990, China upgraded it in 2014 and 2015 to accommodate the J-11s.[vi]
Analytic confidence for this assessment is medium. The analyst did not use an analytic method for this assessment. Source reliability is medium with no conflict among sources. Not all sources were recent, as the analyst used older sources to provide background. The analyst’s expertise on the topic is minimal. The analyst worked alone with some casual discussion with other analysts. The task complexity was somewhat complex and the time constraint was sufficient.