China Deploys Missile System in South China Sea

Chinese HQ-9 surface-to-air missile launcher (file image courtesy Jian Kang)

By Reuters 2016-02-16 21:05:58

The Chinese military has deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of its contested islands in the South China Sea, Fox News reported on Tuesday, citing civilian satellite imagery.

The images, from ImageSat International, show two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers as well as a radar system on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea, according to Fox News.

Woody Island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "While I cannot comment on matters related to intelligence, we do watch these matters very closely."

The report comes as U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations concluded a summit in California.

At a news conference following the summit, Obama said he and the Southeast Asian leaders discussed the need to ease tensions in the South China Sea, and they agreed that any territorial disputes there should be resolved peacefully and through legal means.

A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel chain last month in a move the Pentagon said was aimed at countering efforts by China, Vietnam and Taiwan to limit freedom of navigation. China condemned the U.S. action as provocative.

The missiles arrived at Woody Island over the past week, Fox News said. According to the images, a beach on the island was empty on Feb. 3, but the missiles were visible by Feb. 14, it reported.

A U.S. official confirmed the accuracy of the photos, Fox News said.

The official said the imagery viewed appears to show the HQ-9 air defense system, which has a range of 125 miles  and would pose a threat to any airplanes, civilian or military, flying close by, according to Fox News.

Separately, China rapped Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Tuesday ahead of her visit to Beijing after she said Australia recognized the Philippines' right to seek arbitration in its dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea.

The Philippines has challenged Beijing at an arbitration court in The Hague over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Beijing has repeatedly and angrily said it will not recognize the case.

Speaking in Tokyo, Bishop said Australia did not take sides on the completing claims in the waters but was awaiting the outcome of the arbitration.

"We recognize the Philippines' right to seek to resolve the matter through arbitration, but we urge all claimants to settle their disputes peacefully without coercion, without intimidation," she said.

Asked about the remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he believed Australia "understands" China's position on the South China Sea.

Hong repeated that China thought the Philippines arbitration case was a contravention of international law and went against the consensus Beijing and Manila have had on the issue.

"China certainly will not accept this. Australia ought not to selectively avoid this reality," he told a daily news briefing.

Bishop also said she will seek clarification from China about how it intends to use its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, including whether Beijing intends to grant access to other countries.

"In the past (Chinese) Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said they will be public goods, so I am seeking more detail as to how other nations could access these public goods," Bishop said of the islands.

"Depending upon the answer he gives, we will look at the situation," she told reporters in Tokyo, where she met Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida.

Bishop, who will fly to Beijing later on Tuesday for talks with Wang and other Chinese officials, would not say whether Australia would seek access to the islands

Hong said China's building on the islands was for its own defense, as well as providing facilities for the international community to carry out search and rescue operations.

It will not affect freedom of navigation or overflight, he added.

"We hope Australia can adopt an objective, fair and impartial position and not do anything to harm regional peace and stability," Hong said.

Beijing has asserted its claim in the region with island building projects that have reclaimed more than 2,900 acres (1,170 hectares) of land since 2013, according to the Pentagon.

It tested for the first time last month a 3,000-metre runway built on a reclamation on Fiery Cross Reef by landing several civilian airliners from Hainan island.