The first steps to fortify China’s growing island empire in the South China Sea are underway as a pair of HQ-9 missile batteries have appeared on Woody Island, located in the northern portion of the South China Sea. This is the same highly developed island that has received major airfield upgrades and J-11 fighter aircraft recently.

The imagery, which Fox News obtained from Imagesat International and the Pentagon confirmed as legitimate, shows a series of vehicles arrayed along the island’s northeast coastline. These vehicles appear to be transporter-erector-launchers, radar and a slew of support vehicles for the HQ-9 “Red Banner” air defense system.

The HQ-9 is an advanced intermediate to long-range surface-to-air missile system that is closely akin to the latest versions of the Russian S-300 air defense system. The system packs a powerful actively electronically scanned array radar and its missiles have an engagement range of 100 to 125 miles depending on the source. The HQ-9 can also be integrated into a larger integrated air defense system and use other passive and active sensors for targeting.

The arrival of high-end SAM system to a Chinese island in the South China Sea is just a preview of what is to come. A few hundred miles to the south, where China’s massive island building projects have greatly matured, the long runway on Fiery Cross Reef island has been completed. It is very likely this installation, along with many others in the vicinity, will be armed with similar SAM systems in the coming months and years.

Although China has gone through great lengths to make these islands appear to be used for anything but military purposes, that will almost certainly not be the case once they are all operational.

Submarine hunting, sea control and fighter aircraft will likely be based on the islands with the longest runways. Even the smaller ones will be able to operate helicopters and work as forward refueling and rearming points. Fiery Cross Reef Island’s runway and airbase is big enough to be a forward operating and refueling base for China’s ever-more active long-range bomber fleet.

Yet the most logical of all militarization for China’s “new” islands are missile systems. Not only of the anti-air kind but also of the anti-ship variety. These systems can be deployed to even tiny islands without runways large enough to land transport aircraft. They don’t even need their own radars or targeting systems. Instead they can use the sensor picture from other missile and sensor systems based on other islands, as well as from surveillance aircraft. When activated, combined these islands will lay down an overlapping anti-access/area-denial net over massive swathes of the South China Sea, giving China the ability to claim it as their own and control its airspace and shipping channels on a whim.

This is precisely what many in Washington are so concerned about and what was the focus of a two-day, high-level conference involving the U.S. and allied regional Asian powers in Palm Desert California this week. President Obama was at its helm. Yet it seems nothing of major essence came out of the meetings in regards to dealing with China in the South China Sea. In fact, even the attendees, some of which have conflicting claims on portions of the South China Sea, a body of water that is rich in fish stocks, energy and is a major shipping artery, made little progress in working out their own disputes.

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The U.S. has executed so called “freedom of navigation” drills recently in an attempt to challenge China’s territorial claims in the area, one occurring just weeks ago. Overflights or near-overflights of China’s man-made islands have also occurred fairly regularly for the last couple of years. Increased U.S. presence in the region is also a real possibility, although none of this will directly stop China from finishing its island building projects and heavily arming them once completed. That will take far more diplomatic persuasion than the Obama Administration is seemingly willing to attempt.

One thing is certain, the clock is running out when it comes to forestalling total and persistent dominance of the South China Sea by China and once these islands are fully armed and operational there will be little hope of turning back the clock.

Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.

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Top photo via Google Earth and photo by Jian Kang/Wikicommons