BEIJING — Suspected surface-to-air missile batteries have been deployed by China on a disputed island in the South China Sea, officials said Wednesday, heightening concern in the United States and Asia about Beijing’s expanding ambitions in the region.
Satellite images apparently showing the missile sites were released even as President Obama wrapped up a summit with leaders from nations making rival maritime claims in the region.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement it had “grasped that Communist China had deployed” missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, and urged “relevant parties to refrain from any unilateral measure that would increase tensions.”
Taiwan’s statement followed a report on Fox News on Tuesday that was based on satellite images acquired by a private company. A U.S. defense official also confirmed the “apparent deployment” of the missiles, Reuters reported.
The Paracels Islands have been under Chinese control for more than 40 years but are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The reported Chinese move followed a U.S. naval operation in which a missile destroyer sailed close to another island in the Paracels last month.
The South China Sea, bordered by China and a number of Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, has been the center of rising tensions since Beijing began expanding its footholds in the region last year.
China has built seven artificial islands in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea and constructed airstrips on three of them, prompting worry in the West about possible military intent. But China argues that other nations in the region have also built airstrips and reclaimed land.
At a news conference Wednesday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said he had only just been told of the reports but suggested they were an attempt by “certain Western media to create news stories.”
He also drew attention to lighthouses, meteorological stations and shelter and rescue facilities that China has built on some islands.
“As for the limited and necessary self defense facilities China has built on islands and reefs stationed by Chinese personnel, that is consistent with the self defense and self preservation China is entitled to under international law,” he said.
Wang added that “non-militarization is certainly in the interest of all parties, but non-militarization should not be just about one single country.”
Fox News, showing civilian satellite images from ImageSat International, said two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers, as well as a radar system, had been deployed on Woody Island at some point between Feb. 3 and Feb. 14.
A U.S. official told Fox News the images appeared to show an HQ-9 air defense system, which has a range of 125 miles and would pose a threat to planes flying in the vicinity.
Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the deployment of missiles to the Paracels would not be a surprise but would be a concern, and would be contrary to China’s pledge not to militarize the region, Reuters reported.
“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.”
Called Yongxingdao by China, Woody Island boasts an artificial harbor, an airport, roads, army posts and other buildings.
Recent satellite imagery appears to show that China is conducting dredging and landfilling operations at two other islands on the Paracels, while adding a helicopter base on Duncan Island that could be used for anti-submarine warfare missions, the Diplomat reported last week.
The news broke just as Obama was completing two days of talks with 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, at the Sunnylands retreat in California.
Among those present were the leaders of Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, which all have overlapping claims with China for parts of the South China Sea.
“We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas,” Obama told a news conference.
During a state visit to the United States in September, Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged not to militarize the contested Spratly Islands, which lie to the south of the Paracels. But the Foreign Ministry in Beijing later acknowledged China was constructing “a limited amount of necessary military facilities for defense purposes only.”
At Sunnylands, Obama also pledged the United States would continue to conduct “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea. He said that maritime disputes must be resolved by legal means, including through a case brought by the Philippines challenging China’s claims over vast swaths of that sea.
The White House also announced that Obama had accepted an invitation to visit Vietnam in May, reflecting a growing rapport between Washington and Hanoi that also irks Beijing.
China has accused the United States of undermining peace and stability in the region and infringing on its sovereignty by sailing naval vessels near some of the disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Just last month, a U.S. missile destroyer passed close to Triton Island in the Paracels, in what the U.S. military said was a response to “excessive maritime claims” that impinge on the rights and freedoms of the United States and other nations. China said that action “severely violated the law.”
Beijing has also refused to take part in an arbitration case brought by the Philippines in The Hague, arguing that the two countries should settle their dispute bilaterally. But Obama said all parties to the U.N. law of the sea are obligated to respect the ruling.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said China had been building up its military facilities on the Paracels for some years.
He said it was unclear whether this latest reported move was a direct reaction to the recent U.S. naval operation in Paracels but that Beijing would probably try to justify it as a “reaction to U.S. military moves in the South China Sea.”
It could, he said, be a precursor to China eventually declaring some kind of Air Defense Identification Zone in the northern South China Sea, which could eventually be extended farther south as military facilities are built up on the Spratly Islands.
Such a move would be seen very negatively by the United States and other claimants. But for the time being, deploying missiles on Woody Island is less provocative than making a similar move on the Spratlys, he said, because the Paracels are basically a bilateral issue with Vietnam rather than a multilateral one.
“It is not as provocative as it could have been,” he said. “If they had deployed missiles on the Spratlys, that would have elicited a much stronger response from other countries in Southeast Asia. We’ll see a strong reaction from Vietnam, but I don’t anticipate the other claimants will react strongly, if at all.”
Responding to the report, Taiwan’s President-elect Tsai Ing-wen told reporters tensions were now higher in the region, according to Taiwan’s state-owned Central News Agency.
“We urge all parties to work on the situation based on principles of peaceful solution and self-control,” Tsai said.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin also said the deployment of missiles on Woody Island “increases tensions in the South China Sea,” the Associated Press reported. In Vietnam about 100 people, gathering to commemorate the start of a 1979 invasion by Chinese forces, chanted, “Down with the aggressors” and “Hoang Sa, Truong Sa,”the Vietnamese terms for the Paracel and Spratly island chains.