- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2001

China is preparing to conduct large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea from Hainan island and on Woody Island, where China is building up its forces for power projection.
Defense officials said preparations for the exercises, including amphibious warfare drills, were detected by U.S. intelligence agencies over the past two weeks.
"Were seeing preparations," said one official. He said it is not known when the maneuvers will begin.
A second official said: "There are some indications of amphibious exercise planning by the South Sea Fleet," as China calls its naval forces in the region.
The Chinese military was observed sending an advance team recently to check Woody Island in preparation for upcoming exercises, the officials said.
A third official said the military movements were "unusual" and include ground, air and naval forces on Hainan island and units on the mainland in southern China.
However, other officials said the preparations so far do not appear threatening or even worrisome.
Woody Island, the main island of the disputed Paracel island chain south of Hainan, is close to the area where the U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane collided with a Chinese F-8 interceptor on April 1.
Chinas military conducted a massive 11-day search effort for the pilot, Wang Wei, who apparently died after the collision in waters near the Paracels, which China calls the Xisha Islands.
The U.S. military routinely monitors Chinese military maneuvers. In 1996, Chinese war games near Taiwan were thought by the Pentagon to be a possible prelude to military action against the island.
Chinas effort to extend its military power further into the South China Sea is believed to be a cause of the April 1 confrontation between the EP-3E and the F-8 jet.
China claims sovereignty over the area 200 miles from its shore, a position disputed by the United States, which recognizes only the internationally accepted 12-mile territorial limit.
China detained the 24 American crew members of the aircraft for 12 days and is still holding the high-tech aircraft.
The Chinese government is demanding that the United States halt all maritime surveillance flights, a position rejected by the Bush administration.
The White House has said the flights to monitor Chinese military activities are part of a broad regional security strategy.
According to Pentagon officials, Chinas military is building up its forces to be able to conduct military operations further from its shores. It has converted more than 20 B-6D bombers to aerial refueling tankers and has based some of its air-refuelable jets on Hainan.
Military exercises have been carried out in the past on Woody Island. It is viewed by Pentagon analysts as the key strategic base for future power projection.
U.S. intelligence agencies photographed construction of fuel storage tanks on Woody Island in early 1999. The long runway and fuel depot are believed to be for future Chinese long-range flight operations, either reconnaissance or combat.
Woody Island, which Vietnam owned until 1974, is strategically located south of Hainan island. Pentagon officials said the Chinese could use it as a base for conducting military operations against the Philippines, Taiwan or Vietnam.
Tensions between China and the Philippines have increased in recent months over Chinese activities in the Spratly Islands, an island chain close to the Philippines where China also has been increasing its military presence.
Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military with the Jamestown Foundation, said he believes the upcoming Chinese exercises are linked to the recent surveillance aircraft incident.
"First and foremost, this would be a response to the recent incident," said Mr. Fisher, a former aide to Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican.
"It also would serve to remind the Vietnamese of Chinas expansive South China Sea claims, and also would be aimed at Manila — to warn the Filipinos against a revived alliance with the United States."
As for Woody Island, Mr. Fisher said the outpost has become a "secret aircraft carrier" in the South China Sea for China.
Preparations for the Chinese war games coincide with the start of a major U.S. military exercise in Thailand known as Cobra Gold.
The U.S.-Thai-Singapore military exercise began Tuesday and will continue through May 29.
This years exercises for the first time include Singaporean troops and observers from Australia, South Korea, France, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Japan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
U.S. Special Forces commandos also are in Thailand training Thai government anti-drug forces, in areas close to Chinas border.
Chinas military has been linked by congressional investigators to illegal drug trafficking in Burma.


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