China’s People’s Liberation Army has deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system on one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, according to Taiwan and US officials, adding to growing tensions in the region about Beijing’s territorial ambitions.
Fox News initially released images showing two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers, as well as a radar system on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea. The reports were subsequently confirmed by Taiwanese and US defense officials.
The Chinese defense ministry told Reuters in a statement that defense facilities on “relevant islands and reefs” had been in place for many years, adding that the latest reports about missile deployment were nothing but “hype”.
China claims 90 per cent of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea, and its maritime ambitions have led to tensions with its neighbors, angry at what they see as Beijing’s militarization of the region. Many neighbors have rival claims to sections of the maritime region, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan.
The Paracel Island chain is a largely unpopulated archipelago administered by China for the past 40 years. It has become the flashpoint in an increasingly aggressive territorial dispute between China and Vietnam, while Taiwan also claims the islands.
“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,” Taiwan defense ministry spokesman Major General David Lo told Reuters.
The report used images from ImageSat International, a civilian agency. The images show an empty beach on February 3rd, but missiles are clearly visible on February 14th.
A US official said the photographs appeared to show the HQ-9 air defense system, which would pose a threat to any planes, civilian or military, flying nearby.
China is also reportedly building a helicopter base at Duncan Island in the Paracel chain.
In 2014, there was a stand-off between China and Vietnam in the area after China’s Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig was drilling between the Paracels, and Vietnam said the vessel was within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf, while Beijing insisted it was operating within its waters
China has built a series of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago to underline its territorial claims to most of the South China Sea, a key trade route through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes each year, including a large part of the world’s oil shipments.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China was entitled to deploy self-defense facilities on the islands, a right granted by international law, and criticized the Philippines for bringing the South China Sea dispute to a Hague tribunal.