A modern J-11 interceptor fighter photographed positioned at the end of the heavily fortified Woody Island's military-grade runway. Picture: CSIS/AMTISource:Supplied
The move is likely to anger Beijing as President Donald Trump seeks its continued co-operation on North Korea.
The US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the USS Higgins guided-missile destroyer and the USS Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, came within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbours.
The guided missile cruiser USS Antietam.Source:Supplied
Both ships appear to have recently departed their deployment to Arabian Sea. They appear to have undertaken what the United States calls a “Freedom of Navigation Exercise” en route to their home ports.
China maintains the islands are its sovereign territory. Several other nearby nations also make that claim. But many of the islands are not even recognised as islands under international law. Any artificial modification of a reef or shoal does not change its status.
But China has embarked on an enormous engineering project in recent years, turning many contested outcrops into enormous fortresses, complete with airfields and harbours. Beijing has arbitrarily claimed ownership of more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea. It’s claim that this is part of its historical heritage was recently rejected by an international court of arbitration.
The guided missile destroyer USS Higgins.Source:News Limited
The US military vessels carried out manoeuvring operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels, one of the officials said.
Little more than a week ago, Beijing boasted it had landed several aircraft — including its nuclear-capable H-3K bombers — on Woody Island, one of its Parcel Islands fortresses.
The move flies in the face of Beijing’s repeated promises that it was not seeking to ‘militarise’ the disputed islands.
But the presence of the US warships comes amid China’s increasing the presence of advanced weaponry on Woody Islands.
A satellite image showing several new emplacements covered by red and blue tarpaulins on one of Woody Island's beaches. It's believed these conceal new anti-air and anti-ship missile systems. Picture: CSIS/AMTISource:Supplied
‘NEW WEAPONS’ SPOTTED
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has published a report saying it has detected the fresh deployment of combat aircraft and several new weapons systems to Woody Island.
It says one J-11 has been seen parked at the end of one runway on May 12, with several others likely inside nearby hardened hangars. Similar fighters were also deployed to Woody Island in October last year.
But the report, released late last week, says there appears to be several arrays of new missiles positioned on the islands beaches under multi-coloured covers.
These are distinct from the HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems (under brown covers) which were installed on the island in early 2016.
Some 20 new vehicles have been identified, bundled into several different groups. The report says it is difficult to determine what these new weapons are, but states they’re likely to include truck-mounted surface-to-air and anti-ship missile systems and their accompanying radars.
Satellite images taken on last week by Imagesat International show two new launchers on the northern shore of the Island, next to a radar system, all covered by a camouflage net. Picture: Fox News / ImageSat InternationalSource:Supplied
“Those under the red covers are wired together in two distinct groups,” the report reads. “The group farthest west appears to consist of two larger vehicles (perhaps anti-air or anti-ship missiles systems on transporter erector launchers (TELs), though they seem to be shorter than the HQ-9s to the east), two smaller vehicles (perhaps a different missile system), and a large radar truck. The group in the middle consists of another radar truck and two of the smaller vehicles. The blue covers likely consist of various support vehicles.
“Two trucks and four covered vehicles on the east side of Woody Island. These are smaller than the platforms under the red covers on the north, and they don’t appear to be wired together in any way. They are roughly the same size as the jamming platforms China deployed to Mischief Reef in the Spratlys earlier this year, but it is difficult to know for sure what is under the tarps.”
CISIS says the missile vehicles arrived as part of military drills held in the area on May 9. However, it adds new satellite images published by Fox News indicate they were still there as of May 20.
“This suggests that the platforms could be there to stay, just as the HQ-9s that were originally sent to Woody as part of an exercise have remained for more than two years,” the report reads.