China has deployed a battery of surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island under its control in the South China Sea, escalating tension in the region where Beijing is locked in maritime disputes with several countries.
The news of the deployment came as US President Barack Obama ended a summit with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, many of which are in dispute with Beijing over the ownership of islands in the region.
The islands, though uninhabited, are said to be rich in reserves of natural gas and oil. The South China Sea is also crucial to world trade as trade worth $5 trillion pass through the choppy waters.
Taiwan defence ministry spokesperson Maj Gen David Lo told Reuters the missile system was set up on Woody Island, part of the Paracels chain, that has been under Chinese control for more than 40 years but is claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
A US defence official confirmed the “apparent deployment” of the missiles, first reported by Fox News.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said the report was created by “certain Western media” but defended the apparent deployment.
“As for the limited and necessary self-defence 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 told a news conference in Beijing.
He suggested the media should focus on lighthouses that China has built in the region to assist navigation.
US Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris said the deployment of missiles to the Paracels would not be a surprise. However, it would be a concern and be contrary to China’s pledge not to militarise the region, he added.
“We will conduct more, and more complex, freedom of navigation operations as time goes on in the South China Sea,” Harris told a briefing in Tokyo. “We have no intention of stopping.”
China has been sharply critical of Washington’s involvement in the increasingly tense situation, saying only countries directly involved should negotiate and resolve disputes. Beijing has repeatedly described Washington’s maritime operations in the region as interference.
“Once lauded as a sensible shift of policy priority, the so-called US rebalancing toward Asia-Pacific has been increasingly out of balance. In its embryonic period, the strategy had envisioned building a stable, productive and constructive relationship with China as one of its pillars…However, no more than three years later, Washington recklessly sent multiple warships and bombers near Chinese reefs in the South China Sea, in blatant provocation that disregarded China’s sovereignty and security,” state-run news agency Xinhua said in an opinion piece on Wednesday.