Beijing places missile launchers on disputed South China Sea island

Tensions in region could rise after satellite images appear to show two batteries of missile launchers and radar system on Woody Island

China has deployed surface-to-air missile launchers on an island in the South China Sea, satellite images appear to show, dramatically upping the stakes in a territorial dispute involving the US and its regional allies.

Tensions in the South China Sea, a vital shipping route, could rise after two batteries of eight missile launchers and a radar system were deployed to Woody Island in the past week, according to images taken by the private company ImageSat International.

The images were first published by Fox News. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, did not deny that missile launchers had been installed but said the reports were an attempt by certain western media to create news stories.

“As for the limited and necessary self-defence facilities China has built on islands and reefs stationed by Chinese personnel, that is consistent with the self-defence and self-preservation China is entitled to under international law,” he said.

A foreign ministry spokesman also sidestepped confirming the deployment, but did say: “Whether or not to deploy defence facilities on islands is totally within China’s sovereignty. It has nothing to do with militarisation.”

The development, later confirmed by the Taiwanese defence ministry, reverberated through an Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) leaders’ meeting in California, hosted by Barack Obama. Several Asean countries have overlapping claims to islands and surrounding waters in the South China Sea, including Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. China claims most of the area, which is thought to have significant oil and gas reserves and is a route for roughly £3.17tn in trade.

At Tuesday’s meeting Obama said freedom of navigation must be upheld and lawful commerce should not be impeded. “The US will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” he said. “We will support the right of other countries to do the same.”

Satellite images of the beach. ImageSat said that while the setup appears temporary, ‘we expect to see construction of a suitable complex in the near future’.
Satellite images of the beach. ImageSat said that while the setup appears temporary, ‘we expect to see construction of a suitable complex in the near future’. Photograph: Copyrights by ImageSat International N.V. © 2016

The Vietnamese premier, Nguyen Tan Dung, on Monday called for the US to play a larger role in demilitarisation of the South China Sea and have a “stronger voice”.

Beijing’s reported ability to shoot down planes with anti-aircraft missiles is likely to alarm Asean members, who might add further pressure on the US to attempt to halt China’s military expansion.

Woody Island is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, which calls it Phú Lâm Island. The island has been under Chinese control since 1974, according to the US national security thinktank, the Center for a New American Security.

Taiwanese general David Lo told Reuters that Taiwan would closely watch subsequent developments. “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,” he said.

An image dated 14 February showed the presence of the equipment, whereas the same area looked to be empty in an image dated 3 February. Fox News cited a US official as saying the images appeared to show the HQ-9 air defence system, which had a range of about 125 miles and could therefore threaten any nearby planes.

The Vietnamese foreign ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment..Asked about the missile move, a US state department spokesman said: “While I cannot comment on matters related to intelligence, we do watch these matters very closely. The United Sates continues to call on all claimants to halt land reclamation, construction, and militarisation of features in the South China Sea.”

South China Sea map

A US navy destroyer sailed close to the disputed Paracel Island chain, which includes Woody Island, in a “freedom of navigation” exercise late last month. China branded that action as “highly dangerous and irresponsible” and accused the US of being the biggest cause of militarisation in the South China Sea.

Wang was asked about the deployment reports at a joint press conference that he was holding alongside his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, who was in Beijing for annual strategic talks. Wang said he was only told of the reports several minutes beforehand. He said: “I also hope the media everywhere … will turn your attention more to the lighthouse we have built on some of the islands ... which are in operation now and have been very useful in assuring the safety of passing ships.”

Bishop had said before the trip that she intended to question China about its activities in the South China Sea. “We had a candid exchange of views on these issues. China and Australia share a common interest in the maintenance of peace and security in our region,” Bishop said on Wednesday after the meeting.

Japan, which is embroiled in its own territorial dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, said it was deeply concerned by the missile launcher reports.

“The ongoing situation in the South China Sea, where unilateral actions, including large-scale land reclamation and building of outposts and their use for military purposes, change the status quo and raise tensions in the region, is an issue of common concern to the international community,” a spokesman for Japan’s foreign ministry told the Guardian.

“Japan has serious concerns over such actions and would like to reiterate that such unilateral actions to create a fait accompli cannot be accepted.”

Tokyo recently announced plans to deploy thousands of troops and build missile batteries on tiny islands in the East China Sea, with officials confirming for the first time that the defences were designed to check Chinese military influence in the region.

The spokesman said Japan and Australia were in a “special relationship” and had been conducting close consultations on a wide range of issues affecting the region.

China has reclaimed islands artificially for decades, building runways and military installations on once-isolated coral reefs. In May, Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided as Beijing tried to set up an oil rig. Vietnam released footage of a Chinese ship ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat.

Additional reporting by Calvin Godfrey in Ho Chi Minh City


Daniel Hurst, Oliver Holmes and Justin McCurry in Tokyo

The GuardianTramp

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