China deployed surface-to-air missiles this month on a contested island in the South China Sea, keeping tensions high even as leaders of Southeast Asian nations pledged to try and peacefully resolve territorial disputes in the waters.
Satellite images showed two batteries of eight HQ-9 surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system on Woody Island, part of the Paracel chain claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, Fox News reported.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said it was aware of missiles being deployed. US Pacific Command chief Harry Harris said the report was not confirmed but warned it would signal a militarization of the South China Sea.
Asked about the missiles at a briefing in Beijing, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that limited self defense facilities on Woody Island are consistent with China’s self-protection policies and international law. He described the report as Western media hype.
China’s island-building program in the South China Sea and its movement there of military assets is causing friction with other claimant states and the US, whose Navy has dominated the western Pacific since the end of World War II. President Barack Obama and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed at a two-day summit in California on Tuesday to ensure “maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas.”
The Chinese-made Hongqi-9 missiles have a range of about 125 miles (201 kilometers) and would pose a threat to any plane flying within that range, Fox reported. They were deployed sometime after Feb. 3, it said.
“While the Chinese foreign ministry could claim that the missiles are defensive in nature, their deployment certainly puts its claim that China wants to avoid further ‘militarization’ of the South China Sea into question,” said Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
President Xi Jinping said in Washington last year that China had no intention to militarize the South China Sea. Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli said in January that China would “never be defenseless” and the degree of defensive facilities depended on how much China is under threat. Last month, the US sent the USS Curtis Wilbur into waters near the islands to contest the “excessive” maritime claims of China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China has reclaimed 3,000 acres of land in the waters over two years, warned US military planes and ships from going near areas it controls and its ships have clashed with Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats. It is expanding its island building in the Paracels, according to recent images posted on the website of The Diplomat magazine. They show dredging and filling at two new sites in the island chain about 15 kilometers from Woody Island.
“If they militarize after saying they won’t, then that is significant for the US debate about what to do for the next phase of the rebalance,” said Michael Pillsbury, director of the Center for Chinese Strategy at the Washington-based Hudson Institute and an adviser to the Pentagon. “This deployment is crossing a red line and means regular military units from the army, navy or air force may now be deployed.”
Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative for Asia is the so-called military and economic rebalance to the region after previous administrations focused more on the Middle East and elsewhere. China sees the policy as an effort to contain its influence in the region.
“Washington should bear in mind that China will never turn a blind eye to any attempt that challenges its indisputable sovereignty,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary Wednesday. “Underestimation of China’s resolve to defend its core interests would be a fatal mistake.”
The language of the California communique echoed previous Asean statements and made no direct reference to China. Neither China nor the US are members of Asean. While Vietnam and the Philippines have been critics of China’s assertiveness, non-claimant Asean states have been less willing to challenge it in a region increasingly dependent on the world’s second-biggest economy. China is the largest trading partner of Asean nations as a whole.
“The problem for Asean is that as long as they operate by consensus, China can always count on Cambodia and Laos to veto any statement they don’t like,” said Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “It is not insignificant that they commit themselves to rules-based international norms, but it is pretty pro forma.”