WASHINGTON D.C. – The United States Pentagon has expressed â€œSerious Concernâ€ after China deployed surface-to-air missiles on an island in the South China Sea, an escalation that further militarizes a region where significant tensions have already emerged between China and its neighbours.
Officials in Taiwan and the United States on Wednesday said China has placed missile batteries on Woody Island, the largest in the Paracel island group roughly 300 kilometres southeast of China â€“ an area that has been the focus of a renewed construction effort as Beijing places a heavier stamp on its claims in the South China Sea.
Both Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the Paracels, islands that like the much more distant Spratly group â€“ where Beijing has dredged the sea to create new land masses capable of supporting buildings and runways â€“ are disputed territory inside a maritime expanse criss-crossed by vital shipping lanes that move some $5-trillion (U.S.) in world trade.
The deployment of surface-to-air missiles marks a controversial expansion by China, adding to the small military base it operates on Woody Island, whose facilities include radar and a runway that has been used by fighter jets.
China has controlled the Paracels since 1974, after a short naval battle with Vietnam. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi played down the missile installation, saying Wednesday that â€œthe limited and necessary self-defence facilities China has built on islands and reefsâ€ are â€œconsistent with the self-defence and self-preservation China is entitled to under international law.â€
But the United States and Chinaâ€™s neighbours see the missile installation, which appeared on satellite images between Feb. 3 and 14, as a provocative step by a country that has disregarded international opposition in asserting influence over a vast maritime area it claims as its own â€“ although no country has been willing to do more than issue verbal criticism.
â€œThere is every evidence every day there has been an increased militarization of one kind or another,â€ U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, saying the missiles will prompt â€œvery serious conversationâ€ with China.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called on U.S. President Barack Obama to employ â€œmore practical actionsâ€ to counter China in the region. Japan and the Philippines also criticized China, whose growing assertiveness in the South China Sea has been one of the triggers for a massive regional ramp-up in military expenditures.
The Asia-Pacific share of global defence spending will grow from one-fifth in 2010 to nearly a third by 2020 â€“ from $435-billion a year to $553-billion â€“ according to a December estimate by defence analysis firm IHS Janeâ€™s.
â€œThe region is at the threshold of an arms race â€“ if not already in an arms race â€“ and the South China Sea is heading toward becoming a theatre of big power rivalry, specifically between China and the United States,â€ said Yanmei Xie, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group.
Confirmation of the missile installation came only hours after Mr. Obama concluded his first summit with Southeast Asian leaders in California by calling for â€œtangibleâ€ measures to reduce South China Sea tensions, â€œincluding a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas.â€
Commentators in China, however, placed blame squarely on the United States, which has used its own military hardware to undermine Chinese claims, including overflights by B-52 bombers and sailings by warships within 12 nautical miles of both the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
With a new missile installation, â€œjet fighters from the U.S., an outside country, may feel uneasy when making provocative flights in the region. To us, thatâ€™s a proper result,â€ the Communist Party-run Global Times wrote in an editorial on Thursday.
â€œThereâ€™s no need to exaggerateâ€ the effect of missiles in the region, said Zhu Feng, a professor at Nanjing University who is executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea.
China has been building up its military presence on Hainan Island, its southernmost province, and placing missiles on Woody Island serves as a â€œkind of reinforced defence line,â€ Prof. Zhu said.
In the United States, observers see the missile installation as a potential precursor to Chinese imposition of an air defence identification zone that would see Beijing assert control of the skies over the South China Sea as well.
China imposed such a zone over the East China Sea in 2013, and has shown little evidence of bowing to global concern.
â€œThe actions China has undertaken in the South China Sea over the last few years suggest itâ€™s prepared to absorb the reputational damage,â€ said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at the ISEAS â€“ Yusof Ishak Institute. â€œIt expects countries to protest its moves, but thereâ€™s nothing really anyone can do to force China to change course.â€