China has deployed surface-to-air missile launchers on an island in the South China Sea, satellite images appear to show, dramatically upping the stakes in a territorial dispute in which the US and its allies are involved.
Tensions in the South China Sea, a vital shipping route, could rise after two batteries of eight missile launchers and a radar system were deployed to Woody Island in the past week according to images taken by the private company ImageSat International.
The images were first published by Fox News. Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, did not deny that missile launchers had been installed but said the reports were an attempt by “certain western media to create news stories”.
“As for the limited and necessary self defence facilities China has built on islands and reefs stationed by Chinese personnel, that is consistent with the self defence and self preservation China is entitled to under international law,” he said.
The revelation, which was later confirmed by the Taiwanese Defense Ministry, will reverberate through an Asean leaders meeting in California, hosted by Barack Obama.
Several Asean countries have overlapping claims to islands and surrounding waters in the South China Sea, including Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. China claims most of the area, which is thought to have significant oil and gas reserves and is a route for roughly £3.17tn in trade.
At Tuesday’s meeting Obama said freedom of navigation must be upheld and lawful commerce should not be impeded. “The US will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” he said. “We will support the right of other countries to do the same.”
Yet the Vietnamese premier, Nguyen Tan Dung, on Monday called for the US to play a larger role in demilitarisation of the South China Sea and have a “stronger voice”.
Beijing’s reported ability to shoot down aircraft with anti-aircraft missiles is likely to alarm Asean members, who might add further pressure on the US to attempt to halt China’s military expansion.
Woody Island is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, which calls it Phú Lâm Island. The island has been under Chinese control since 1974, according to the US national security think tank, the Center for a New American Security.
The missile move was confirmed on Wednesday by Taiwan. Maj Gen David Lo told Reuters news agency that Taiwan “will closely watch subsequent developments.”
“Interested parties should work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region and refrain from taking any unilateral measures that would increase tensions.”
An image dated 14 February showed the presence of the equipment, whereas the same area looked to be empty in an image dated 3 February.
Fox News cited a US official as saying the images appeared to show the HQ-9 air defence system, which had a range of about 125 miles (200km) and could therefore threaten any nearby planes.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged receipt of a Guardian request for comment but did not immediately reply.
An editor working for a Vietnamese state newspaper, who asked for anonymity, said the move was cause for concern and the local media was awaiting a foreign ministry announcement, which is expected at the end of the day.
“These missiles supposedly have a range of 200 kilometres and that means they could hit Vietnamese Air Force jets just as they’re taking off,” he said.
The US Department of Defense gave a statement to the Guardian when asked about the missile move.
“While I cannot comment on matters related to intelligence, we do watch these matters very closely.
“The United Sates continues to call on all claimants to halt land reclamation, construction, and militarisation of features in the South China Sea.”
A US navy destroyer sailed close to the disputed Paracel Island chain, which includes Woody Island, in a “freedom of navigation” exercise late last month. China, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims in the area and the US has objected to any “militarising” of the islands.
China branded that action as “highly dangerous and irresponsible” and accused the US of being “the biggest cause of militarisation in the South China Sea”.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, also addressed the media in Beijing on Wednesday alongside his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, who is in the capital for annual strategic talks.
Asked by about the missile deployment reports, Wang said he was only told of the reports several minutes ago and suggested it was an attempt by “certain western media to create news stories”.
“I also hope the media everywhere … will turn your attention more to the lighthouse we have built on some of the islands ... which are in operation now and have been very useful in assuring the safety of passing ships.”
Bishop had said before the trip that she intended to question China about its activities in the South China Sea. “We had a candid exchange of views on these issues. China and Australia share a common interest in the maintenance of peace and security in our region,” Bishop said on Wednesday after the meeting.
Bishop also raised a pending arbitration case raised by the Philippines against China in The Hague, saying Manila was seeking a clarification of international law, “not a determination on the merits of respective maritime claims” she said.
Wang said Philippines pursuit was illegitimate.
China has reclaimed islands artificially for decades, building runways and military installations on once-isolated coral reefs.
The disputes have already led to altercations. In May, Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided as Beijing tried to set up an oil rig. Vietnam released footage of a Chinese ship ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Source: The Guardian