Taking further steps to beef up its military presence in the already tense South China Sea, China has deployed antiaircraft missiles on a contested island in the region, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said Wednesday.
The missiles have been deployed on Woody Island, also known as Yongxing, which is part of the Paracel chain, Taiwan said. Woody Island has been controlled by mainland China since the 1970s but is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Taiwan said its military would “pay close attention” to subsequent developments on Woody Island and urged “relevant parties … to refrain from any unilateral measure that would increase tensions.”
Satellite images from ImageSat International, first reported by Fox News, appear to show two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers as well as a radar system on Woody Island. Fox quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying the images seemed to show an HQ-9 air defense system, with a range of about 125 miles.
China claims sovereignty over a large swath of the South China Sea and has been dredging sand and building facilities, including runways and ports, on various islets and reefs for the last several years. But other countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, also have asserted claims to some of the specks of land in the region.
U.S. officials are worried that China eventually wants to use the islets for military purposes and is ultimately seeking to push American forces out of what it regards as its own backyard.
In recent months, the U.S. has sailed several warships close to disputed territory held by China in what Washington has characterized as freedom of navigation exercises.
News of the missile deployment broke shortly after President Obama concluded a summit at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with 10 Southeast Asian leaders.
At the summit, Obama said he and the other leaders “discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas.” But a final declaration from the attendees contained no concrete measures for doing so.
Asked about the missiles, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, appearing alongside Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at a previously scheduled news conference Wednesday afternoon in Beijing, at first said he had only been told of the reports several minutes prior. He suggested they were an attempt by “certain Western media to create news stories.”
But later in the briefing, Wang said: “As for the limited and necessary self-defense facilities China has built on islands and reefs where stationed Chinese personnel are stationed, that is consistent with the self-defense and self-preservation China is entitled to under international law.”
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei had told a regular news conference that China would “deploy necessary national defense facilities on the islands.”
“It does not impede freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea that all countries are entitled to under international law,” he said.
Although the missiles deployed on Woody Island are apparently defensive in nature, Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said that “of course it means the militarization of the South China Sea islands, which China has promised not to militarize.”
Last month, speaking alongside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing, Wang Yi had said that “China has given a commitment of not engaging in so-called militarization, and we will honor that commitment. And we cannot accept the allegation that China’s words are not being matched by actions."
Huang said the missiles were intended as a “message to Vietnam.”
“Because if you put some anti-air facility in some place, you want to defend something,” he said.
Xu Guangyu, a retired Chinese military officer and consultant to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Assn., denied that putting antiaircraft missiles on Woody Island was a provocation, comparing it with the U.S. stationing military equipment on Guam.
“These are defensive missiles and the U.S. should not make a big fuss about it,” he said.
But Roger Cliff, author of “China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities” and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the placement of the missiles “makes a mockery of the idea that China is not militarizing the islands.”
“This is one more sign that China is moving away from the idea of resolving things through dialogue” in the South China Sea, he added.
Still, Cliff said he did not expect “any kind of direct response from the U.S.” immediately, noting that the antiaircraft missiles don’t threaten American destroyers and other ships the Pentagon might elect to sail through the South China Sea. The U.S., he predicted, would continue with its freedom of navigation sailings in the region.
The missile deployments, Cliff said, would be most irritating to Vietnam. “This is not going to be received favorably in Hanoi,” he predicted. “This is rubbing their face in it … and will probably push them toward greater cooperation with the U.S.”
Timothy R. Heath, senior international defense research analyst at The RAND Corp., said China is showing the U.S. it is willing to take risks to defend its sovereignty and territorial claims.
“Beijing resents U.S. efforts to challenge the legitimacy of those claims through freedom of navigation operations,” Heath said. “The missile deployment tells the United States and the region that China is willing to further militarize the situation to defend its position.”
At the summit in Sunnylands, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on Monday called for Washington to have a “stronger voice” and bigger role in the demilitarization of the South China Sea, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile Wednesday, Taiwan’s president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, urged “every party to uphold peace in settling the South China Sea dispute and use self-restraint. This is the most important thing.”
Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo that he was unable to confirm the missile reports, but said the issue “concerns me greatly,” the Associated Press reported.
“If there are missiles there, it could be an indication of militarization of the South China Sea in ways that the president of China, that President Xi [Jinping] said he would not do,” Harris said.
Special correspondent Jennings reported from Taipei. Nicole Liu of The Times Beijing bureau and special correspondent Chuan Xu contributed to this report.
Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China