On June 3, the Israeli geospatial intelligence firm ImageSat International (ISI) captured imagery of the contested Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, showing that Chinese deployed HQ-9 medium- to long-range active radar homing surface-to-air missile systems have been moved from their positions on the island’s beach. The missiles were originally deployed to the island in February 2016 and were last imaged by ISI on May 20. The removal of the weapons is not a response to a U.S. B-52 bomber flyover, which a spokesperson for Pacific Air Forces indicated was a routine training mission, as the operation occurred two days after the imagery was captured by ISI. Li Jie, a Chinese military expert at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, and two U.S. Defense officials also countered the argument that the removal was in response to recent pressure by the United States. The experts assert that weapons have likely been concealed inside buildings on the island, or a recent typhoon may have necessitated their temporary removal for maintenance and repair. Woody Island is claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan and lies about 250 miles southeast of a Chinese submarine base.
UPDATE: New imagery captured on June 8 by ISI shows the HQ-9 SAM systems have been redeployed on Woody Island, confirming assessments that their removal was for maintenance or a military drill.
For more on China’s build-up in the South China Sea, see the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.