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Background Briefing: China’s Air Strip on Woody Island

Carlyle A. Thayer, C3S Paper No.2055


It has been reported that China has completed an air strip on Woody Island. How will this improve China’s defense capacity in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: In 1990, China constructed a 1,200 foot runway on Woody Island that was extended twice to 7,874 feet before the current extension. The airstrip on Woody Island already can accommodate fighter aircraft such as the Su-27 and Su-30MKKs, H-6 bombers and large supply transport aircraft.

The facilities adjacent to the runway include four hangers. Air traffic is controlled by a Type 791 X-band precision-approach radar. Other military infrastructure on Woody Island includes naval docks capable of accommodating frigates and destroyers and a fuel depot. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers are based on Woody Island to protect the runway and other military facilities.

China has also built military-related facilities elsewhere in the Paracels. A weather station has been built on Pattle Island, while Robert Island houses a radio beacon, the only beacon south of Hainan. The docks on Duncan Island are being expanded.

A Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) station has been operating on Rocky Island, the highest premonitory, since 1995. This station could provide air or surface warning and support air missions or ship targeting. Open sources report that China may have stationed the HY-2 anti-ship cruise missile on Woody Island.

On July 19, 2012, China’s Central Military Commission officially decided to establish a military command in Sansha City after its elevation to prefecture-level administrative status. The garrison was placed under the PLA Hainan provincial sub-command within the Guangzhou Military Command. The Sansha military garrison has been assigned responsibility for national defence mobilization, military operations and reserves. According to Defence Ministry spokesperson Geng Yansheng, “China may set up local military command organs in the city [Sansha] according to relevant regulations.” Senior Colonel Cai Xihong was appointed commander of the Sansha garrison and Senior Colonel Liao Chaoyi was named Political Commissar.

According to Japanese sources, China’s decision to establish a “security area” in Sansha “is considered preparation for full-scale military action in the South China Sea.” This view is disputed by retired U.S. Rear Admiral Mike McDevitt who argues that a military garrison in Sansha will not affect the military balance or signal imminent hostilities. McDevitt points out that any major military operations in the South China Sea would be mounted from Hainan where the PLA has major bases.

According to McDevitt, “putting garrisons on Woody Island or elsewhere in the Paracels would effectively maroon these guys, so the only advantage would be just showing the flag – to say, ‘We are serious’.”

According to regional security specialists, the standing up of a military garrison command on Woody Island does not represent an attempt to build a base for forward deployment into the South China Sea. In their view, the Sansha military garrison is merely an administrative response to the upgrading of Sansha to a prefecture-level city. Military garrisons do not command PLA main force combat units, PLA Navy for PLA Air Force units.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China’s Air Strip on Woody Island,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 9, 2014.

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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

 (Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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