June 21 (UPI) -- A satellite image shows that at least four Chinese fighter planes were deployed to a contested South China Sea island, analysts said.
The image, taken Wednesday and published Friday by CNN, shows the Chengdu J-10 jets on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China expelled a then-South Vietnamese military force on the islands in 1974 and have occupied them since, fortifying them in recent years with barracks, airfields, upgraded harbors and land reclamation.
The South China Sea includes vital shipping lanes and islands claimed by several Southeast Asian countries. In 2016, China reserved the right to declare the entire, 1.3 million square-mile area of the sea as an ADIZ [air defense identification zone], requiring any country flying aircraft over it to first inform Beijing.
On the satellite image, the planes are parked in full view to "demonstrate it is their territory and they can put military aircraft there whenever they want," according to Carl Shuster, former U.S. Pacific Command Joint Intelligence director. "It also makes a statement that they can extend their air power reach over the South China Sea as required or desired."
A naval battle group led by China's only aircraft carrier is also under watch by Taiwan as it patrols the South China Sea, the Taiwanese defense ministry said.
Last week the aircraft carrier Liaoning, surrounded by a squadron of escort ships, appeared in the Sea. Beijing said its appearance had nothing to do with the region's territorial disputes, and was on a routine training exercise.
"The military has been able to exercise all relevant intelligence to get hold of the entire movements of the Liaoning, including those of its ships and planes throughout its voyage in relevant regions," the Taiwanese military said. The squadron of ships traveled near Japanese waters earlier in June.
In May, a U.S. destroyer passed through the area, prompting accusations of provocation from the Chinese defense ministry.
"China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, and we are firmly opposed to the provocative behavior of the US warship," Ministry spokesman Li Huamin said.