Despite urging from President Obama to show restraint in the region, China has reportedly deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of the disputed islands it controls in the South China Sea.
According to Reuters, Taiwan defense ministry spokesman Major General David Lo reported yesterday that the missile batteries had been set up on Woody Island, also known as Yongxing Island.
Part of the Paracels chain, Woody Island has been under Chinese control for more than 40 years, despite the fact that Taiwan and Vietnam claim it as well. Small fishing settlements exist on the island as well as an airport and government facilities. Police officers and soldiers stationed on the island reportedly change shifts every two years, and civilian employees change shifts every six months.
A U.S. defense official also confirmed the “apparent deployment” of the missiles, first reported by Fox News.
China’s foreign minister said reports by “certain Western media” should focus more on China’s building of lighthouses to improve shipping safety in the region.
“As for the limited and necessary self-defense facilities that China has built on islands and reefs we have people stationed on, this is consistent with the right to self-protection that China is entitled to under international law so there should be no question about it,” Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing.
The Chinese defense ministry told Reuters in a statement that defense facilities on “relevant islands and reefs” had been in place for many years, adding that the latest reports about missile deployment were nothing but “hype”.
China claims most of the South China Sea, -a waterway that sees over $5 trillion in global trade pass through annually- and has been building runways and other infrastructure on artificial islands to back those claims up.
The United States has made it clear that it will continue conducting “freedom of navigation patrols” by ships and aircraft to ensure unmolested passage through the region where neighboring countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have claims and interests.
But China’s Defense Ministry claims that maritime air and sea defense systems have existed on the islands for years, according to a statement online by the Chinese government-run Global Times.
The statement asserted that the Paracel Islands were Chinese territory and that China had the legal right to deploy defensive measures to protect its territorial sovereignty and integrity. It blamed Western media for attempting to “hype up the so-called China threat.”
In addition, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that the “deployment of defense facilities in our own territory is appropriate and reasonable.”
“It’s aimed at improving our national defense capabilities and has nothing to do with so-called militarization,” he told a press briefing earlier today.
Commander of US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris said the deployment of missiles to the Paracels would prove an unsurprising concern and would contradict China’s pledge to refrain from militarizing the region.
“We will conduct more, and more complex, freedom of navigation operations as time goes on in the South China Sea,” Harris said at a Tokyo press briefing. “We have no intention of stopping.”
News of the missile deployment came as Obama and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations concluded a summit in California, where they discussed the need to ease tensions in the South China Sea.
Analysts fear that China’s increasing military presence in the disputed waterway could effectively lead to the area being a Chinese-controlled airspace.
“(The missile deployment) reinforces the view that China intends to exert growing control in these international waters, including potentially by declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone,” said Rory Medcalf, Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.
Popular Military’s Asia-Pacific analysts were contacted and will release more local information as the situation unfolds.
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