Chinese missile systems thought to have been removed from a disputed island in the South China Sea have reappeared according to new satellite images of the area.
The highly contested region has seen a flurry of Chinese military action in recent months, raising tensions with the U.S. and China’s South Pacific neighbors.
In early June, ImageSat International (ISI) reported observing on satellite imagery an empty Woody Island beach where a large number of missile launchers were once set up. Yet new intelligence released this week shows that the weapons systems have seemingly reappeared, CNN reported.
ISI claimed in its initial analysis that the weapons systems might have been reassigned to another island or moved as part of a drill. But experts were skeptical about the missiles being permanently removed from the island, countering that they were likely sent out for maintenance.
“Due to the corrosive effects of salt and humidity in the islands, HQ-9 missile systems must be removed and sent back to the mainland for maintenance periodically,” said Timothy Heath, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation.
China claims countless disputed territories throughout the South China Sea and has recently resorted to installing missile defense systems and runways outfitted with various military aircraft on bases there.
While China says that these new bases are strictly to ensure safety at sea, navigation assistance, and search and rescue, U.S. officials – including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis – say the various equipment is only for military use.
“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” Mattis said during a foreign policy conference in Singapore this month. “China’s militarization of the [islands] is also in direct contradiction to President Xi’s 2015 public assurances in the White House Rose Garden that they would not do this.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters during a press briefing on June 6 that the increased militarization was a direct result of U.S actions in the area.
The U.S. regularly conducts military drills and Freedom of Navigation operations, much to the dismay of Beijing. This has led to a handful of minor confrontations in recent months and has contributed to the increased tensions in the region.
“Isn’t it militarization when you send attacking weapons like the B-52 bombers to the South China Sea? … If someone frequently flexes his muscles or snoops around near your house, shouldn’t you raise your alertness and improve your defense capabilities,” she added.