Accusations that China has placed anti-aircraft batteries on a disputed island in the South China Sea are stoking tensions in a region that is grappling with Beijing’s claim to maritime rights that cover nearly the entire area.
On Wednesday Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement that it had "grasped that Communist China deployed" an unspecified number of missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel group.
Moving the ground-to-air missiles onto the island, would allow China to bolster its claim on an important strategic resource. China has been building new islands in the disputed sea by piling sand atop reefs and then adding airstrips and what look like military installations.
Woody Island, which the Chinese call Yongxing, is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The island contains an artificial harbor, an airport, roads, army posts, a helicopter base and other buildings, the Associated Press reports.
Some of the world’s busiest sea lanes traverse the area which is also a rich fishing ground and may contain petroleum reserves beneath the sea bed.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that the U.S. expects to have "very serious" talks with China about the South China Sea.
“There is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of serious concern,” he said. “We’ve had these conversations with the Chinese, and I’m confident that over the next days we will have further, very serious conversation on this.”
China did not directly deny the reports, instead Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the media for making sensationalist claims, while he bragged about the “public goods and services” the nation provides in the region, according to news reports.
Taiwan and China both claim nearly the entire sea. Vietnam and the Philippines also have large claims, while Brunei and Malaysia have smaller stakes to waters and features that lie much closer to those nations than they do to far away China.
Obama seeks "tangible steps"
Beijing’s move comes just after President Obama and leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations wrapped up a meeting in California. Obama called for a halt to militarization in the South China Sea after the meeting ended on Tuesday.
“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 said at a news conference Tuesday."Freedom of navigation must be upheld and lawful commerce should not be impeded."
While the joint ASEAN-U.S. statement issued after the meeting failed to mention China by name, it included a “commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight.”
That language has been a consistent watchword for the U.S. and its allies as they seek to counter China’s ascendance in the region.
“This happened when the U.S.-ASEAN summit took place as Washington and the ASEAN leaders agreed to voice the concerns over the South China Sea,” Tran Cong Truc, the former chief of Vietnam’s border committee, told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
“China decided to push forward with their plan in an attempt to try to ruin the common voice of ASEAN and the U.S. in countering China,” he said.
While China may want to drive a wedge between ASEAN and the U.S., it is also testing its neighbors, he explained.
“By doing this they want to test the water to see how other countries will react so they can continue with their plan, deploying modern weapons to the Spratly Islands,” Tran Cong Truc said.
Taiwan military analyst Chen Guoming told RFA’s Cantonese service that the satellite intelligence is highly unlikely to be mistaken, and that the missiles on the island are likely China's home-produced Hongqi-9 series, or the Russian-built S-300 series.
Chen said the militarization of the Nansha, or Spratlys, could mean that China's neighbors and fellow claimants may do the same.
The dispute hits Vietnam particularly hard, as many Vietnamese feel the Chinese move smacks of imperialism.
Vietnamese activists chanted anti-China slogans in Hanoi Wednesday as they marked the 37th anniversary of a border war with their giant neighbor, AFP reported.
In a pre-planned event, more than 100 people gathered in Hanoi to mark China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam's northernmost provinces.Security officials stood by as veterans chanted "down with China, down with China's invasion,” AFP reported.
The short but bloody war came after Vietnam toppled the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge regime in neighboring Cambodia. The war ended with Chinese forces withdrawing and both powers claiming victory.
Although Vietnam celebrates military victories over the French and American armies, there are no official events to mark the China border war.
But Beijing's increasingly assertive stance in the contested waters triggered public anger and rounds of protests in authoritarian Vietnam where the demonstrations are sometimes forcefully broken up.
Just how far Vietnam will go is unclear as China is also a one-party communist state that, like Vietnam, rejects outside pressure over its human rights practices and shortcomings in the rule of law. China is also Vietnam’s biggest trading partner.
Fox News reported that China had moved surface-to-air missiles to the Paracels, identifying them as two batteries of the HQ-9 system, along with radar targeting arrays. The missiles have a range of about 200 kilometers (125 miles), making them a threat to all forms of civilian and military aircraft.
“We believe this is an attempt by certain Western media to create news stories," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang told reporters after a meeting with Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop.
The development is largely civilian oriented and benefited the region, he told the AP and pointed to the construction of light houses, weather stations, and rescue and shelter facilities for fishermen.
"All of those are actions that China as the biggest littoral state in the South China Sea, has undertaken to provide more public goods and services to the international community and play its positive role there," minister Wang said, according to reports.
Construction of military infrastructure is "consistent with the right to self-preservation and self-protection that China is entitled to under international law, so there should be no question about that," he said.
Reported by RFA's Cantonese and Vietnamese Services. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.