The expansion of a military airstrip and high-level visit from China’s naval chief this month have put a small island in the middle of the South China Sea back in the international media limelight (Xinhua, October 7; Global Times, October 16). Woody Island, known in Chinese as “Yongxing (Eternal Prosperity) Island,” is an important part of China’s territorial strategy in the South China Sea. As China’s largest occupied feature in the South China Sea and one of only a handful of islands large enough for an airstrip and other facilities, Woody Island serves as a home to Chinese troops and civilian researchers.
Woody Island now hosts an airstrip nearly as long as Lingshui, an important Chinese air base on Hainan. China likely lengthened the island’s airstrip in preparation for basing fighters, most likely J-11s, and more heavily laden military aircraft in order to better project air power and further press its territorial claims in the South China Sea.  This enhanced military capability would be well positioned to support a future Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in this strategically important body of water, if China decided to escalate its territorial dispute like it did with Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands last November (see China Brief, December 5, 2013).
Even more important than its size is Woody Island’s location, as many of China’s infamous “assertive” episodes over the last decade have centered upon it. The island is located a mere 100 nautical miles (nm) south of where the U.S. Navy’s P-8 Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) Collection aircraft was harassed by a heavily armed Chinese Naval Aviation J-11BH on August 19. A near collision between the USS Cowpens and a Chinese warship occurred about 100 nm north of Woody Island in December 2013 (Global Times, December 12, 2013). And the 2001 EP-3 incident, involving the death of a Chinese pilot and detainment of a U.S. crew after making an emergency landing at Lingshui, also occurred nearby as well.
Woody Island’s runway, now expanded by an additional 400 meters, will likely play an increased role in supporting China’s efforts to deter U.S. surveillance activities in the South China Sea, and a possible future ADIZ. The longer runway will allow a wider variety of Chinese fighter jets and bombers to use the island, including those carrying larger loads of fuel and weapons, such as the YJ-8 anti-ship missile. Permanent basing of a small force of fighter jets would allow prompt interception of U.S. surveillance aircraft, reflecting China’s warnings to Washington to cease ELINT collection patrols (Chinese Ministry of Defense, August 28). Most of China’s military aircraft could now use the airstrip without any issues, but from an organizational and strategic perspective, the PLA Naval Aviation’s complement of JH-7 fighter-bombers (9th Air Division 92098) and two J-11BHs (8th Naval Aviation Division 92913) makes the most sense due to their respective anti-ship role and extended range (Global Times, September 3; Military Balance 2014, IISS, February, pp. 236–238).
As argued previously in China Brief by this author, a major consideration for China’s fighter acquisition and basing is increasing the PLA’s loiter capabilities over areas claimed as part of Chinese territory (see China Brief, October 10, 2013). The expanded runway will allow for longer-range patrols by Chinese aircraft to support Beijing’s efforts to press its claims of disputed territory. Similarly, the larger patrol vessels China is currently building will allow longer time on station in sensitive areas, and its man-made island building projects further south—such as on Fiery Cross Reef— will allow the permanent stationing of troops on Chinese-held territory in the South China Sea. Merely showing up is often more than half the battle for legitimacy in such disputes, and China is attempting to “be there” on land, sea and air.
Enforcement of a South China Sea ADIZ, which was hinted at by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson in November 2013, would be contingent upon the ability to promptly intercept interloping aircraft (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 27, 2013). Shenyang J-11s, if based at Woody Island, would have comprehensive coverage of China’s nine-dash line claim. Forward basing at Woody Island would give Chinese aircraft additional range and faster response time than aircraft flying from Hainan or Guangdong province. By extending the “range bubble” out from the mainland and Hainan Island, a South China Sea ADIZ becomes much more realistic, however provocative it may be.
There is also a naval component to China’s recent additions to Woody Island, beyond asserting its claims in the air. Woody Island’s dock, expanded over the years to accommodate larger vessels, will likely be home to many of China’s new Coast Guard vessels on patrol in disputed areas with Vietnam. A second important consideration concerns anti-submarine warfare (ASW), as the island is also close to China’s naval base at Sanya, Hainan, which houses China’s Jin-class nuclear-armed submarines. China’s emerging submarine nuclear deterrent will rely upon the ability to evade observation as well as be free to hide in the patch of ocean south of Hainan or, at least, be able to transit the area undetected on the way to other areas. Woody Island’s location on the southern side of the “box” of ocean that the United States currently uses to monitor China’s submarines at Sanya gives Chinese aircraft based on Woody Island the ability to more effectively monitor and intercept U.S. aircraft attempting to gather information on Chinese submarines.
At the same time, Beijing has sought to mask its military buildup on the island by also housing civilian researchers, making it less of a remote military outpost and more formally part of Chinese territory. In this way, the island is a more effective “tripwire,” allowing any incident involving the island to be framed as an attack on Chinese soil. The concentration of incidents surrounding Woody Island reflects its strategic value to China and reveals Beijing’s long-standing intention to continue increasing its control over the surrounding area moving forward. China’s decision to lengthen the runway, a necessary precursor to support larger and more capable military aircraft, enables Beijing to follow through on this desire for greater influence, and enforce a future South China Sea ADIZ. Whether as a full scale military outpost or a monitoring station, aircraft and ships based at Woody Island are likely to feature in any future clash over territory in the South China Sea.