The Commander of the US Pacific Fleet has confirmed China’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea.
Satellite images taken on Feb. 14 appear to show two batteries of 8 missile launchers along with a radar system on Woody Island, or Yongxing Island as it’s known in China. A U.S. official confirmed the accuracy of the photos taken by ImageSat International. The official told Fox News the weapons appear to be HQ-9 missiles.
The HQ-9 has a range of 125 miles and two of the launchers in the images appear to have been erected. The Taiwan Defense Ministry warned the missiles are capable of striking nearby military and civilian targets.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called reports of the deployment a “serious concern,” and he criticized China’s increased “militarization” of the region.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi calls reports of missile deployment an “invention” of Western media. However, he also said “the limited and necessary self-defense facilities” on its claimed islands are “consistent with the right for self-preservation and self-protection…. under the international law.”
China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim Woody Island. Beijing has maintained a permanent presence there since 1956. The island houses a Chinese military garrison, airport and hospital. It’s home to about 1,000 people. Most of them are soldiers and construction workers.
China has been escalating tension in the contested region in recent years through massive land reclamation and militarization. In November, images surfaced of Chinese J-11 fighter jets landing on a newly-enlarged runway on Woody Island.
Last month, the Chinese government sent two civilian airliners to the newly-built runway on Fiery Cross Reef, in the contested Spratly Island chain.
The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes called the move a “good publicity stunt,” but said “no one should be in any doubt that the true purpose of those new islands and their new runways is also military.”
China’s latest stab at militarization comes as US President Barrack Obama ends a two-day meeting in California with South East Asian leaders including representatives from each country with a territorial claim in the South China Sea. The attendees discussed regional issues, and Obama called for “a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas.”
The missile deployment may have been response to a recent US operation.
In January, the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed past Woody Island and further into the Paracel Island chain to challenge China’s territorial claims and uphold international freedom-of-navigation laws in the region.
A Chinese military spokesperson said the move “violated Chinese law” and warned it could “cause extremely dangerous consequences.”
Shortly afterward, Kerry visited Beijing to discuss regional issues. During a press conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi vowed to not “militarize” the disputed islands, but maintained “There are some necessary facilities for self-defense.”
Beijing claims virtually all of the South China Sea, a region which may be rich in resources. It also serves as the passageway for more than $1 trillion in ship-borne goods each year. Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim the region’s islets and waters either in whole or in part.
Although Washington says it takes no side on the question of sovereignty in the region, the US vows to protect freedom of navigation there.
“The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Obama said Tuesday..