BEIJING, China (UPDATED) – China has deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea, Taiwan said Wednesday, February 17, as Beijing insisted it had a right to build “self-defense” systems in the strategic region.
Taiwan’s defense ministry confirmed the existence of the facility after Fox News reported that missile launchers had arrived on Woody Island, part of the Paracels chain, in the past week.
The report came as US President Barack Obama called for “tangible steps” to reduce tensions in the region.
China has controlled all of the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, since the mid-1970s and the end of the Vietnam War.
But tensions in the sea – through which 1/3 of the world’s oil passes – have mounted in recent months since China transformed contested reefs in the Spratly islands further south into artificial islands capable of supporting military facilities.
Washington says the move threatens free passage in a strategically vital area and has sent warships to sail close to the disputed islands to assert freedom of navigation, raising fears of escalation.
Australian military aircraft also regularly overfly the area.
Fox News said Tuesday, February 16, that images showed two batteries of 8 missile launchers and a radar system had arrived on Woody Island, the Paracels’ main island.
“The defense ministry has learned of an air defense missile system deployed by the Chinese communists on Yongxing Island,” a Taiwan defense ministry spokesman told Agence France-Presse.
The ministry would give no further detail on when it had become aware of the installation, saying only that it had known about it “for a while”.
After a meeting with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi described the reports as “an attempt by certain Western media to create news stories”.
He did not explicitly deny the deployment, but said the press should “turn your attention more to the lighthouses we have built on some of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea”.
“Self-defense facilities that China has built on the islands”, Wang said, “are consistent with the right to self-preservation and self-protection that China is entitled to under international law, so there should be no question about that”.
The Fox News report was based on pictures from ImageSat International, which earlier this week released images said to show reclamation work in the Paracels.
The missiles appeared to be the HQ-9 air defense system, with a range of about 200km (125 miles), according to reports.
Experts said the long-range missiles could be used to target enemy aircraft, heightening tensions in the region and potentially prompting US intervention.
“The long-range HQ-9… could exacerbate the nerves of neighboring countries, particularly Vietnam,” said Kevin Cheng, editor-in-chief of the Taipei-based Asia-Pacific Defense Magazine.
“The military deployment could be seen to violate the US call for free navigation in the area and allow it more excuse to interfere in affairs there.”
The report on the missile batteries came as Obama wrapped up a two-day Southeast Asian summit in California where leaders voiced concern over Beijing’s military build-up in the strategic and resource-rich area.
“We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions,” Obama said, calling for “a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas.”
The Pentagon declined to confirm the Chinese missile deployment to Agence France-Presse.
But China’s increasingly muscular actions in the vital waterway featured heavily at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) talks at Sunnylands, a sprawling California desert retreat.
In a joint statement, Obama and the 10 ASEAN leaders demanded the “peaceful resolution” of a myriad of competing territorial claims over islands, atolls and reefs.
Obama has tried to muster an informal coalition of Pacific allies to demand that Beijing respect the rule of law, hoping that China will want to avoid being painted as a regional bully.
But in Beijing, Australian foreign minister Bishop downplayed reports that Canberra was considering participating in such a grouping, saying that the country was “enhancing its strategic and defence relationship with a number of countries in the region, including China.”