China deploys surface-to-air missiles on disputed isle
Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30
China has deployed anti-aircraft missiles on a disputed South China Sea island in a major escalation of tensions with the United States over the world's most lucrative shipping lanes.
Taiwan's defence ministry said that it has confirmed the existence of the missiles on an island in the Paracel chain that is occupied by Beijing but also claimed by Taipei and Vietnam.
Commercial satellite photographs obtained by Fox News appeared to show that Beijing has placed two batteries of eight missile launchers with a reported distance of 125 miles and radar-targeting equipment on Woody island.
A US official later told the 'New York Times' that the Pentagon also has "evidence", believed to be satellite imagery, that the Chinese military has deployed surface-to-air missiles on the island.
China later appeared to defend the installation at a regular media briefing. Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, said that while he was not aware of the specifics of a missile deployment, any armaments would be used for defence and were not part of a military build-up.
China's foreign minister Wang Yi criticised the Western media for the "creation" of news stories.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has previously pledged not to "militarise" the region. But the missiles represented a significant new stage in Beijing's claim on the 1.35 million-square-mile waters through which ships carrying $5trn of international trade pass each year.
The reports of the deployment pose a fresh challenge from Beijing to US President Barack Obama, who had struck a defiant tone over the South China Seas just a few hours earlier at the end of a summit with leaders of South East Asian nations.
To Beijing's fury, the US has sent Navy ships and Air Force planes on patrols across the waterways recently to signal that it does not recognise China's claim.
"The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," Mr Obama said in California before the news of the missiles emerged.
He called for "tangible steps to lower tensions including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarisation of disputed areas".
Beijing has insisted that virtually the entire South China Seas are its own waters, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia all have claims to some of the islands and waters.
To press its claim, China has been aggressively creating islands from reefs and sandbanks across the waterways and building harbours for naval vessels and runways capable of receiving military aircraft.