TAIPEI/WASHINGTON/BEIJING – China has deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of the disputed islands it controls in the South China Sea, Taiwan and U.S. officials said, potentially ratcheting up tensions even as U.S. President Barack Obama urged restraint in the region.
Satellite images appear to show the missile launchers on the isle, reported a U.S. television network, which said they arrived in the past few days.
Taiwan Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. David Lo said Wednesday the missile batteries had been set up on Woody Island. The island is part of the Paracels chain, under Chinese control for more than 40 years but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the deployment of missiles on Woody Island “increases tensions in the South China Sea.”
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in a rare move, the country’s prime minister on Monday pressed Obama for a greater U.S. role in preventing militarization and island-building in the South China Sea.
Images from civilian satellite company ImageSat International show two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers on Woody Island, as well as a radar system, Fox News said. It said they arrived over the past week and, according to a U.S. official, appear to show the HQ-9 air defense system, which has a range of 125 miles (200 km) and would pose a threat to airplanes in the vicinity.
China’s foreign minister down-played said the reports, saying they were created by “certain Western media” and should instead focus 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.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year, and has been building runways and other infrastructure on artificial islands to bolster its title.
The United States has said it will continue conducting “freedom of navigation” patrols by ships and aircraft to assure unimpeded passage through the region, where Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said he was unable to confirm the missile reports, but added the issue “concerns me greatly.”
Harris said if the missiles exist, it could be a degree of militarization that Chinese President Xi Jinping “said he would not do.”
China last month said it would not seek militarization of its South China Sea islands and reefs, but that did not mean it would not set up defenses.
News of the missile deployment came as U.S. President Barack 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 but did not specifically mention China’s assertive pursuit of its claims there.
“China seems to be putting missiles on a disputed South China Sea island while going slow on negotiating a code of conduct with ASEAN that would ban precisely this kind of thing,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. “This is a sign that China does not take such diplomacy seriously.”
According to Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor at De La Salle University in Manila, Beijing is “upping the ante and beginning to send a clear signal that it won’t tolerate any American military presence close to its occupied land features.”
Heydarian sees cause for concern in the fact that Woody Island, in the Paracels chain, is in particularly sensitive waters.
“This is very alarming, because the Spratly chain of islands could be next, especially with the Chinese airstrips in the area either (having) been completed, like in Fiery Cross, or soon to be, as in Subi and Mischief reefs,” he said in an email.
Heydarian said the U.S. and its allies are running out of time and that a concerted effort is needed in the region, including greater diplomatic pressure and more regular joint patrols by the U.S. and its allies such as Australia, Japan and India.
“With the impending activation of the collective security bill, the JMSDF should definitely make its presence felt and aid American efforts to preserve freedom of navigation and prevent further Chinese militarization of its occupied features,” Heydarian said, referring to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.
Joint patrols, however, could prompt a dangerous escalatory cycle, said Nick Bisley, executive director of La Trobe Asia at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
“Joint patrols of sea lanes or joint (freedom of navigation operations) would be seen by Beijing as a concerted effort to corral it,” he said. “I think if other countries are going to join in then they will need to do so individually and in the name of international law and not collectively in ways that look like coordinated alliance action to coerce China.
He added: “My sense is that if we get joint patrols we’re in real trouble regionally.”
Some also believe that China’s increasing military presence in the disputed sea could also effectively lead to a Beijing-imposed air defense identification zone, similar to the one China designated in the East China Sea, near the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in 2013.
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 Australian National University’s Medcalf.
Mira Rapp-Hooper, a South China Sea expert from the Center for a New American Security, said it is not the first time that China has sent such weapons to the Paracels, but that this move is serious.
“I do think surface-to-air missiles are a considerable development,” she said. “If they have been deployed they are probably China’s effort to signal a response to freedom-of navigation operations, but I don’t think it is a totally unprecedented deployment.”
A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Triton Island in the Paracels last month, a move China condemned as provocative.
“Woody Island belongs to China,” said Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “Deploying surface-to-air missiles on our territory is completely within the scope of our sovereign rights. We have sovereignty there, so we can choose whether to militarize it.”
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In November, two U.S. B-52 strategic bombers flew near artificial Chinese-built islands in the Spratlys.
China’s move is likely to rattle Vietnam the most because of its proximity to the Paracels and because of a history of maritime tensions with China that spiked in 2014 with a standoff after China moved a massive oil rig into disputed waters.
China regards Australia and the U.S. as unwelcome outside interlopers in regional waters. Wang and Bishop engaged in a testy exchange in December 2013 after Australia criticized the unilateral declaration of the air defense zone in the East China Sea.
Analysts say China’s military moves in the South China Sea are primarily aimed at intimidating the Philippines and Vietnam, while solidifying its hold on the islands and boosting its ability to project force.
That is meanwhile strengthening those in the U.S., especially in the Pentagon, who “will want to more vigorously challenge China,” said Thomas Berger, an expert on the region at Boston University.