Beijing seems to have removed missile systems from a disputed island in the South China Sea, although US defence officials and experts said the disappearance was likely to be only a temporary arrangement, amid rising tensions between the two countries.
Satellite imagery and new analysis from Israeli intelligence firm ImageSat International (ISI), dated June 3, suggested the Chinese surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island, in the Paracel Islands, may have been removed or relocated.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said it would not be the first time that Beijing had removed its HQ-9 missiles.
The last removal took place in July 2016, just two days before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea.
But he said removals had also be made for maintenance purpose.
“Because of the humid weather, plus a recent typhoon in the region, it is likely that those systems needed to be temporarily removed for repair or to have some of the parts replaced,” said Li.
The development came after Beijing criticised the United States for sending two nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to fly over the disputed Spratly Islands.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused the US military on Wednesday of “hyping up militarisation and stirring up trouble”, and warned that “China will not be threatened by any military warships”. Hua said China would do whatever was necessary to protect its sovereignty.
The “routine” fly-by mission came just days after US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis pledged at a regional security summit that the US would “compete rigorously” with China in the Indo-Pacific.
The Pentagon was reported to be considering sending warships to the Taiwan Strait and intensifying naval patrols in the South China Sea that would be longer in duration and involve larger numbers of ships, allowing the US military to closely observe Chinese facilities in the area.
The US is also making efforts to rally its international allies, including the UK and France, to beef up their military presence, such as navy patrols to counter those of China.
Meanwhile, two US defence officials were quoted by CNN as saying that it was very unlikely China had totally removed the missile system. Instead, the US has assessed that the Chinese have probably concealed them inside buildings.
The report also quoted the intelligence firm as saying that the removal was likely to be temporary.
“On the other hand, it may be a regular practice,” ISI said. “If so, within the next few days we may observe a redeployment in the same area.”
Other analysts agreed, saying it could be because the missiles were not suited to deployment where they might be vulnerable to salt water damage, and therefore required replacement or repair, said the report.
Li said that the extent of the maintenance work they needed would also be a factor in how long the missiles were removed for.
“[A redeployment] would happen much faster if it’s just to change some small parts,” he said, “But if the whole system needs to be replaced, then it would take much longer because it needed to be shipped back to places like Hainan for replacement.”
Ni Lexiong, a naval expert with Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, agreed that the arrangement was likely to be temporary.
“With the increasingly tense relations between the two countries, it’s understandable that we make a little gesture of compromise,” said Ni.
“It’s not wise for China to directly confront the US. We shall decide later [on possible redeployment] after the tensions go down.
“It’s better that we make three steps forward and two steps back, because both sides are still restrained and neither side wants to go to war.”