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Missiles Deployed on Disputed South China Sea Island, Officials Say
China has apparently deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea, escalating regional tensions with China's neighbors and the United States.
According to a United States official who insisted on anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, the Pentagon has evidence that there are HQ-9 missile batteries on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, which is claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan as well as by China. The official did not give details about how many missiles there were, how long they had been there or whether they were operational.
Taiwan's Defense Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday, also saying that antiaircraft missiles were present on the island.
Tensions over the sea have been inflamed by China's extensive effort to build artificial islands there, intending to bolster its claim to sovereignty over most of the sea and the many reefs and islets in it. China's claims in the sea overlap those made by other nations including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The United States does not recognize China's claims, and in recent months, it has sailed warships and flown military aircraft near the Chinese outposts to assert its right to freedom of navigation.
Without referring specifically to the missiles, President Obama addressed the issue on Tuesday at a meeting in California with leaders of 10 Southeast Asian countries. Mr. Obama said the group agreed on a statement reaffirming the importance of freedom of navigation in the sea.
"We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to reduce tension, including a halt to further land reclamation," Mr. Obama said. "Freedom of navigation must be upheld."
Sending a signal to China, Mr. Obama said American ships and planes would continue to sail and fly "wherever international law allows." The United States had a similar response on Wednesday to recent military steps by North Korea, China's ally, dispatching four F-22 stealth fighter jets to fly over South Korea in a show of force and military solidarity after the North's recent launch of a multistage rocket.
Still, the Southeast Asian countries are divided over how aggressively to resist China's military expansion, with maritime countries like the Philippines and Vietnam pushing for more vigorous action than continental countries like Laos. Those divisions were evident in the language of the joint statement from the California meeting, which asserted the need for freedom of navigation but made no specific mention of China.
The Chinese Ministry of Defense did not confirm or deny the missile deployment, but noted that the Chinese Navy and Air Force had had forces on the Paracel Islands "for many years."
"The Paracel Islands have always been a part of China's territory," the ministry said in a statement. "China has the legitimate and legal rights to deploy defense facilities within its territory, in order to defend the sovereignty and security of the country." It dismissed the reports about the missile deployment as "hype by certain Western media outlets."
The missile deployment was first reported by Fox News, which said pictures from ImageSat International showed that two missile batteries had appeared on the island some time between Feb. 3 and Sunday.
The Chinese-made missiles have a range of about 200 kilometers, or 125 miles, and are capable of destroying aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, according to Missile Threat, a website run by the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va.
Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the head of the United States Pacific Command, said on Wednesday that the missile deployment, if verified, would go against pledges not to militarize the South China Sea that China's president, Xi Jinping, made in September when meeting with Mr. Obama at the White House.
But Mr. Xi, in his Washington remarks, specifically referred to the Spratlys, a different chain of islets and reefs, and not to the Paracels, when saying that China "does not intend to pursue militarization" in the South China Sea.
Zhu Feng, a professor at Nanjing University who studies China's foreign policy, said that the Chinese make a distinction among South China Sea island groups. He noted that the Paracels were much closer to the Chinese mainland than the Spratlys, which are more than 250 miles to the south and have been the focus of much of China's island-building efforts.
Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Wednesday that he had no specific information about a missile deployment on Woody Island, but that it was "totally justified and reasonable" for China to improve defenses on its own territory. "It has nothing to do with so-called militarization," Mr. Hong told reporters at a regularly scheduled briefing.
Woody Island, known as Yongxing in China, has a military airstrip that juts out both ends of the small island and is used by fighter aircraft. It also has a military garrison and a civilian government building.
Mr. Zhu said in a telephone interview that the missiles were probably meant to help protect new Chinese naval bases at Sanya, a city in the Chinese island province of Hainan. Those bases are home to submarines and are eventually expected to host an aircraft carrier.
"The reinforcement of the defense of Woody Island is definitely to constitute some sort of military flank in defense of Sanya, which is becoming China's naval headquarters," said Mr. Zhu, who added that China could do a better job of communicating its intentions.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, said the missiles may give the United States and other nations pause before sending aircraft over the area to challenge what they consider to be China's excessive claims of sovereignty.
"Not that the Chinese are going to shoot down an aircraft in peacetime," he said in a telephone interview. "But certainly it is going to raise the threat environment, and the risks for any U.S. commander who's thinking about where to do an overflight next."
Mr. Graham said images he had seen suggested that the missile batteries might not be operational, because they appeared to lack supporting infrastructure. That could mean China does not intend to station them there permanently, and is just trying to improve its negotiating position on South China Sea issues. It could also be trying to gauge the reaction of the United States and other countries, including Australia, whose foreign minister, Julie Bishop, is in Beijing this week to meet with her counterpart.
"There may be a military element to this, but also a signaling element," Mr. Graham said. "China often combines an upping of the ante before a significant diplomatic event."
[Source: By Michael Forsythe, The New York Times, Hong Kong, 17Feb16]
East China Sea Conflict
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