South China Sea: New Chinese missile base on disputed island sparks fresh militarisation warnings

China has deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system on one of the disputed islands it controls in the South China Sea, according to Taiwanese and US officials.

Key points:

  • US and Taiwan confirm reports of Chinese surface-to-air missiles in the South China Sea
  • Missiles deployed on contested Woody Island
  • Barack Obama calls for "tangible steps" to ease tensions
The deployment of the missiles on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands, ratcheted up tensions in the region and prompted renewed warnings against militarisation, despite pleas from US President Barack Obama for restraint.
Commander of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris said the deployment of missiles to the Paracels would not be a surprise but would be a concern, and be contrary to China's pledge not to militarise the region.
"We will conduct more and more complex, freedom of navigation operations as time goes on in the South China Sea," Mr Harris told a briefing in Tokyo.
"We have no intention of stopping."
The Paracels are in a section of the South China Sea under Chinese control, but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Taiwanese defence ministry spokesman Major General David Lo said no other details of the deployment could be disclosed and added: "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."
 US defence official also confirmed the "apparent deployment" of the missiles, which were first reported by Fox News.
Images from civilian satellite company ImageSat International showed two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers as well as a radar system, according to Fox News.
Mira Rapp-Hooper, a South China Sea expert from of the Centre for a New American Security, said it was not the first time that China has sent such weapons to the Paracels, which have been under Chinese control since 1974.
"I do think surface-to-air missiles are a considerable development," she said.
"If they have been deployed they are probably China's effort to signal a response to freedom-of navigation operations, but I don't think it is a totally unprecedented deployment."
China has said it would not seek militarisation of its South China Sea islands and reefs, but that did not mean it would not set up defences.

China says story fabricated by media, amid calls for calm

Speaking after a meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged all parties involved in disputes in the South China Sea to resolve their differences peacefully.
"We do not take sides on the competing maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea," she said.
"We have an interest in maintaining peace and stability, as does China and the other claimants. We urge restraint and we urge that all parties settle their differences peacefully."
I think it's an attempt by China to push the military envelope in the South China Sea but on the other hand but not to take most provocative step on some of these artificial islands that we've been looking at.
Dr Euan Graham, Lowy Institute
Mr Wang, questioned about reports of the deployment, said the story had been fabricated by Western media.
"We believe this is an attempt by certain Western media to create news stories," he said.
"As for the limited and necessary self-defence facilities that China has built on the islands and stationed by Chinese personnel, this is consistent with the right to self preservation and self protection that China is entitled to under international law, so there should be no question about that."
Ahead of the visit, Ms Bishop said Australia had an unshakeable faith in freedom of navigation, and believed international rules were needed to settle disputes in the region.
The disputed region was on the agenda at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in California, where Mr Obama called for calm.
He said the meeting reaffirmed "our strong commitment to a regional order where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations, large and small, are upheld".

Escalation a 'small step on the ladder'

Defence analysts say the movement of the missile system may have been timed to coincide with Mr Obama's ASEAN talks, and also with Ms Bishop's visit to Beijing.
For several days the Australian Defence Force has been tracking the movement of Chinese equipment, and there are concerns in Canberra over what is unfolding.
The decision to apparently deploy the missiles has surprised military leaders, who believe it is a deliberately provocative step.
"If they were to simply deploy surface-to-surface weapons that would be one thing, but the fact that it's surface-to-air is another thing altogether," one senior defence source told the ABC.
Dr Euan Graham from the Lowy Institute agrees it is an escalation, but only a "small step on the ladder".
"I think it's an attempt by China to push the military envelope in the South China Sea but on the other hand not to take most provocative step on some of these artificial islands that we've been looking at," he said.
Dr Graham said he was not overly surprised by the development.
"China has already been sending out detachments of jet fighters. Therefore if you are going to put aircraft there, it's the next logical step to put surface-to-air missiles to defend those aircraft," he said.

Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize

Explore the conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea

Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.

At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups - the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
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