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China makes upgrades to island base, coastline

February 11, 1999 Bill Gertz
By Bill Gertz

China has stepped up construction of a military base on a disputed South China Sea island, a site the Pentagon suspects will be used to extend the reach of Chinese Su-27 fighter-bombers and warplanes hundreds of miles from the mainland.
The construction was photographed Jan. 29 by a National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands chain that is administered by China but claimed by Vietnam, according to Pentagon intelligence officials.
According to officials familiar with a recent report containing the spy photos and other sensitive intelligence, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is building a fuel-storage facility next to the airstrip on Woody Island, part of the northern Paracels about 260 miles east of Da Nang, Vietnam, and about 400 miles south of Hong Kong.
In another sign of increasing regional tensions, a second secret Pentagon report has concluded that China is deploying large numbers of short-range ballistic missiles on its coastline near Taiwan and is sharply increasing production -- raising new fears of military confrontation and weapons proliferation between the longtime bitter rivals.
On Woody Island, Pentagon officials believe the PLA may be preparing for future deployments of Su-27s purchased from Russia or other military aircraft. The CIA estimates the runway to be up to 7,311 feet long -- enough to accommodate fighters, bombers, refueling aircraft and command-and-control planes.
"This is part of ongoing Chinese efforts at power projection throughout the region," said one official.
Chinese Embassy Press Counselor Cui Jianjun said he was unaware of the construction, but restated China's claim to sovereignty over the Paracels.
Disclosure of the new military construction on the Paracels, which China calls the Xinsha Islands, follows recent reports of China's expansion of military facilities on another disputed island chain, the Spratly Islands, further south near the Philippines.
Some Pentagon officials believe the Chinese are building the fuel depot for Su-27s or future Chinese FB-7 fighter bombers to increase the range of the jets and allow them to be able to reach the Spratlys, where China has clashed with the Philippines.
Philippine military aircraft bombed a Chinese installation on Mischief Reef in the Spratlys in 1995 and Chinese warships were seen recently, along with new military facilities, on the islands.
China specialist Richard Fisher said the military base on Woody Island has been known for some time, and in the past, fighter aircraft were deployed there for short periods.
"All Chinese aircraft can use the Woody Island airstrip," said Mr. Fisher of the Heritage Foundation. "As we look into the next decade, [airborne warning and control jets] could operate out of Woody Island, directing both offensive and defensive operations aimed at controlling access to the South China Sea."
China has at least 87 Su-27s and is expected to buy about 300 of the advanced jets from Russia. It is also developing several other fighter bombers.
Chinese nuclear attack submarines also have sailed to the Paracels, according to Chinese press accounts.
The activities of the People's Liberation Army in the South China Sea have raised fears among nations in the region, particularly the Philippines, about China's expanding military power.
Military intelligence officials have said China is seeking a gradual outward expansion to encompass a north-south "island chain strategy" extending hundreds of miles from China's coast in an arc stretching from Japan to Indonesia.
The Clinton administration has avoided getting involved in China's island disputes for fear of upsetting relations with Beijing. Pentagon spokesmen recently refused any comment on Chinese military activities in the area, a major strategic trade shipping route, especially for oil from the Middle East to Northeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.
China's official Xinhua news agency recently stated that Vietnam has no claim to the Paracels and said plans are under way to open up the islands as "China's Hawaii" for tourists.
China's facility on Woody Island, which Beijing calls Yongxing, includes the airstrip, a pier, a small number of PLA troops and a satellite-tracking station.
The satellite station has also raised concerns among Pentagon officials because it could be used for anti-satellite weapons. In September, Pentagon intelligence agencies detected a laser test in central China to jam infrared sensors on satellites.
U.S. military and commercial satellites are extremely vulnerable to ground lasers, which can damage satellite sensors with even low-power targeted energy bursts, officials said.
China took over the Paracels during the Vietnam War, and fighting broke out with Vietnam in 1978 and 1983 over the islands.
The Woody Island construction appears to be a further effort to extend the reach of Chinese military power. A 1996 Pentagon report on aerial refueling found that, by 1997, "Chinese tanker and receiver aircraft probably will be able to perform some long-range escort, air-to-air and ground attack missions over the South China Sea or elsewhere in the region."
China has converted at least 20 B-6 bombers into long-range refueling tankers and recently equipped up to 24 F-8 fighters with aerial refueling pods for extended-range missions. The refueling capability has extended the F-8s' combat radius from 431 miles to 632 miles, enabling China "to conduct combat missions over the South China Sea, near Taiwan, along the Sino-Indian border and over the East China Sea," the earlier report said.
"Steady progress in air refueling will give China a power-projection capability over the South China Sea by the turn of the century," the report states.