China has deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of the disputed islands it controls in the South China Sea, officials in the US and Taiwan said.
Taiwan defence ministry spokesman Major-General David Lo told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that the missile batteries had been set up on Woody Island, part of the Paracels chain, which is under Chinese control but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
“Interested parties should work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region and refrain from taking any unilateral measures that would increase tensions,” Lo said on Wednesday.
A US military official also confirmed the “apparent deployment” of the missiles, first reported by Fox News.
Images from civilian satellite company ImageSat International show two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers as well as a radar system, according to Fox.
Taiwan’s recently elected President Tsai Ing-Wen told reporters on Wednesday that the move had created a “tense situation”.
“We call on all sides to adhere to the principle of resolving the dispute over the South China Sea in a peaceful manner…employing self-restraint is most important,” Tsai said.
But China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the reports were being exaggerated by Western media outlets.
“I hope that media everywhere, including in Western countries and Australia, will turn their attention to the lighthouses we have built on some of the islands we are using in the South China Sea,” Wang said.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Seoul, said it was notable that China had not denied the reports.
“China says that it has no intention of militarising these islands…but it does say it has the right to self-defence,” our correspondent said.
|China is challenging US dominance in Southeast Asian waters [Reuters]|
News of the missile deployment came as Obama and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations wrapped up a summit in California, where they discussed the need to ease tensions in the region but did not include specific mention of China’s pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea.
Al Jazeera’s Marga Ortigas, reporting from the meeting in Rancho Mirage, said the move marked the first time China had taken such strong military measures in the disputed waters and the deployment would not go unnoticed by the US .
“President Obama did say the United States was duty-bound to keep the region stable by ensuring freedom of navigation, which meant they would continue with military patrols and flybys.
“Something like this by China will definitely be seen as a provocative move not just by the United States but all the countries in the region.”
Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including small islands that are hundreds of kilometres from its southern coast.
Four countries in Southeast Asia have unresolved territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea, which has important shipping lanes and potential oil and other natural resources.
In January, a US warship sailed into the area of sea containing the Paracel Islands group.