BEIJING, China - In a provocative move, that is set to intensify the international conflict over China’s disputed claims on the entire South China Sea, the country is said to have reinstalled surface-to-air missiles, after removing them from an island in the resource-rich waters.
In a controversial move last month, China installed surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island (named Yongxing Island by Beijing), which is the country’s largest base in South China Sea’s Paracel Islands.
The move provoked U.S. and other countries that lay counter claims over the South China Sea.
The U.S. repeated its accused against China’s militarization of the South China Sea, which led to naval confrontations and a war of words between the two countries.
Then, a week later, amid rising tensions over its deployment of the missile launchers on the disputed island, China seemingly removed the missiles.
Now, the Israeli intelligence firm, ImageSat International (ISI) has released new images from the contested island, which revealed that the missiles were back, exactly where they were before.
ISI first released satellite images of Woody Island taken on June 3, which showed the missiles had been removed.
The photos of the exact location where the weapons were placed on the island showed bare sand.
Then, on Monday, the Israeli intelligence firm released recent photos which showed the missiles were placed ‘exactly’ where they were before.
Posting satellite images of the island, the analytics organization wrote on Twitter, “#ImageSat was the first to report (3rd June 2018) the [disappearance] of the SAM systems deployment from #Woody Island. Here's an updated #imagery #intelligence #report, which reveals for the first time their [reappearance] in the same disputed South #China Sea island.”
ISI suggested in its report that it was possible that China’s HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems were removed and redeployed to another island, or moved as part of a drill.
However, experts have raised doubts over the possibility of the missile launchers being permanently removed, instead suggesting that the weapons may have been sent for maintenance.
Chinese military experts pointed out that the removals might have been a short-term solution to de-escalate tensions with the U.S.
According to Timothy Heath, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation, "Due to the corrosive effects of salt and humidity in the islands, HQ-9 missile systems must be removed and sent back to the mainland for maintenance periodically.”
While Beijing has not directly commented on reports of the missiles launchers being removed, the disappearance of the weapons earlier this month came after a confrontation with the U.S.
Warning China that it would face “consequences” over its militarization of the South China Sea, the U.S. flew two nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the Spratly Islands, south of Woody Island last week.
The country was also planning to step up its naval patrols in the South China Sea, in a bid to assert freedom of navigation rights.
Further, Washington was believed to be considering sending warships to the Taiwan Strait, which is a 110-mile-wide waterway separating the island of Taiwan from mainland China.
As tensions between the two countries increased, the Pentagon even withdrew its invitation for China to participate in a multinational naval exercise that the U.S. is hosting this summer.
It said China’s invite had been revoked in response to the expansion of the Chinese military capability in the area.
After the U.S. bombers conducted a flyby, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying warned the U.S.against “hyping up militarization and stirring up trouble.”
China further argued that it has the right to build “defence” facility on its own land.
Last week, Chunying said, "Isn't it militarization when you send attacking weapons like the B-52 bombers to the South China Sea?... If someone frequently flexes his muscles or snoops around near your house, shouldn't you raise your alertness and improve your defense capabilities?"
However, while China claims an enormous swathe of territory across the South China Sea - the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia all have overlapping claims in various parts of the busy waterways.
The recent clash between U.S. and China comes weeks after the Chinese air force landed an H-6K long-range strategic bomber on Woody Island.
Experts have noted that the H-6K bomber has a combat radius of nearly 1,900 nautical miles, which would put all of Southeast Asia in its range from the island.
Over the last few years, in a bid to cement its vast territorial claims in the waterway, China has constructed seven man-made islands farther south in the Spratly group of islands.
It has even equipped these man-made islands with runways, hangers, radar and missile stations.