Washington / AFP
China has deployed fighter jets to the same contested island in the South China Sea to which it also has sent surface-to-air missiles, US officials said.
Citing two unnamed US officials, Fox News said US intelligence services had spotted Chinese Shenyang J-11 and Xian JH-7 warplanes on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel Islands chain over the past few days.
Navy Captain Darryn James, a spokesman for US Pacific Command, confirmed the report but noted that Chinese fighter jets have previously used the island.
Woody Island, which is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, has had an operational airfield since the 1990s but it was upgraded last year to accommodate the J-11.
“We are still concerned that the Chinese continue to put advanced arms systems on this disputed territory,” James said on Tuesday.
Asked about the jets at a regular briefing on Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying neither confirmed nor denied their existence.
Hua said only that China’s activities in the Paracels all fell within the scope of its sovereign territory and were therefore “in accordance with the principles of heaven and earth, and beyond reproach”.
“While you’re paying attention to China, have you also paid attention to all the other coastal countries that have occupied China’s islands and reefs in the past decades and deployed radar and advanced weapons there?” she asked. The deployment was reported as US Secretary of State John Kerry hosted his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in Washington.
Last week China confirmed it had placed “weapons” on Woody Island, defending what it said was its sovereign right to do so.
A US official said that Beijing has deployed surface-to-air missiles on the island, apparently HQ-9s which have a range of about 125 miles (200 kilometers.)
Wang had been scheduled to visit the Pentagon but the visit was canceled due to a “scheduling conflict,” officials said.
On Monday the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies released satellite imagery showing what appeared to be a high-frequency radar installation under construction on an artificial island on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys.