With a major naval exercise slated to being on July 1, 2020, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has begun moving warships and auxiliary vessels into the South China Sea. The move comes amidst heightened tension in the Pacific region, with both the People's Republic of China (PRC) and United States (US) clearly seeking to flex their muscles.
The Intelligence Ledger was first alerted to a buildup of PLAN vessels in the region when Radio Free Asia published satellite imagery of a Type 071 Land Platform Dock (LPD) in Woody Island's harbor. Woody serves as the PRC's administrative and military command center in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Type 071 LPD the newest and most advanced amphibious warfare ship in the PLAN's fleet. With the ability to transport and sustain a marine battalion of up to 800 men, it serves as a potent tool that can be wielded with great efficiency. The vessel can also transport an unknown number of ZBD05 Amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) or ZTD-05s IFVs, four landing craft air-cushioned (LCAC), and two Z-8 Super Frelon helicopters.
The Intelligence Ledger assesses that as the naval exercise continues, Woody Island will see an unprecedented level of Chinese naval activity at its port facilities. Although it is not uncommon to see China's Coast Guard and paramilitary fishing vessels operating out of the port, warships with the People's Liberation Army Navy have typically avoided Woody's harbor for unknown reasons. In fact, Radio Free Asia notes that this appears to be the first time the Type 071 has visited the island.
Beijing first took possession of Woody Island in 1955. Although the People's Republic has always maintained some form of military presence on the landmass, deployments were usually limited and unremarkable in both size and quality. That changed in 2012, when the PLA began drastic renovations and significant upgrades to the island's infrastructure and defense facilities. Since then, Woody has served as a template for the PRC as it seeks to upgrade and build up its other bases in the Spratly and Paracel Island chains.
The island is home to an unknown amount of J-10 and J-11 fighter aircraft, anti-ship missile (ASM) systems, surface-to-air missile (SAM) platforms, and multiple maritime patrol aircraft. In the past, the PLA has also forward deployed the H-6K bomber to the island, proving that it could serve as a leap-off point in the case of a high-intensity conflict in the Pacific.
The Chinese naval exercise comes as the United States has three carrier strike groups (CSG) operating throughout the western and eastern pacific. Two of those CSGs, the Roosevelt Strike Group and Nimitz Strike Group, are currently working side-by-side in a dual carrier training operation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.