Beijing accuses US of 'ulterior motives in hyping up' South China Sea missile move

China says facilities have existed for years in response to anger from the US and its allies after missile launchers were installed on a contested island

China has hit back at the US and its allies in Asia following revelations that Beijing had deployed surface-to-air missile launchers on a disputed island in the South China Sea.

While the Chinese government has not officially confirmed the deployment of the missiles on Woody Island, the state-run Global Times news portal said the US had “ulterior motives in hyping up China’s deployment of missile defence systems on an island in the South China Sea”.

The paper, often used as a mouthpiece for Beijing, cited a statement from the Chinese defence ministry that said “China started deploying maritime and air defences on relevant islands years ago.”

“The hyping by certain western media is a pure repeat of the ‘China threat’ theory,’” it added, referring to concerns over Beijing’s military and economic rise.

Images taken by the private company ImageSat International appear to show that two batteries of eight missile launchers and a radar system were deployed to Woody Island in the past week. The development was confirmed by the defence ministry in Taiwan, which also claims sovereignty.

This image provided by ImageSat International shows satellite images of Woody Island and suspected Chinese missile launcher deployments.
This image provided by ImageSat International shows satellite images of Woody Island and suspected Chinese missile launcher deployments. Photograph: AP

In the Paracels chain, Woody Island has been under Chinese control since the 1970s but is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

China also has overlapping claims with Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Japan to other islands in the region, which is thought to have significant oil and gas reserves and is a route for roughly £3.17tn ($4.5tn) in trade.

Asked by the Guardian to comment on the missile launchers, Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, said: “We urge all parties to exercise restraint and avoid any activities that may increase tensions in the South China Sea.”

The move has also frustrated Washington and US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that there “is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarisation of one kind or another.”

“We have had these conversations with the Chinese and I am confident that over the next days we will have further very serious conversation on this,” he added.

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the US would continue overflights despite the anti-air missile technology in the area.

“The United States military has undertaken operations to indicate our view, and make clear in pretty stark terms our view, that we intend to continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere that international law allows,” he said.

The South China Sea issue and concerns over China’s military expansion has become a key point during the 2016 US presidential campaign.

Republican candidate Marco Rubio, asked by the Guardian how the US should respond, said the navy should add 25 ships to its current standing “so that we have a permanent carrier presence in the region to challenge both any air defence zones that they claim and any water rights that they claim that are illegitimate.”

“We cannot live in a world where the Chinese government illegitimately claims that they own and can control the flow of commerce through the most important shipping lane in the world,” he later added.

The missile launchers are believed to be HQ-9 air defence systems, which have a range of about 200km (125 miles).

A patrol by a US navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels in January, earning Chinese condemnation. America has also conducted sea and air patrols near artificial islands built by China in the Spratly islands chain, including by two B-52 strategic bombers in November.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told reporters on Wednesday the “limited and necessary self-defence facilities” China had on islands and reefs where it has personnel stationed was “consistent with the right to self-protection that China is entitled to under international law”.

Additional reporting by Christy Yao in Beijing


Oliver Holmes in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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