China has deployed batteries of anti-aircraft missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea, in one of its boldest steps yet in asserting its military power in its backyard.
The move follows a series of tense incidents last year in which the U.S. sought to challenge Beijing’s claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands, most notably in sending naval patrols to uphold the ‘freedom of navigation’ through waters which China claims as its own.
The Taiwanese defense ministry said that China had stationed missiles on Woody Island, part of the Paracels chain that is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The Paracels lie some 200 miles north of the Spratly chain. Reuters also quoted a U.S. defense official as confirming the “apparent deployment” of missiles there.
The South China Sea is one of the world’s most strategically important shipping lanes, with around $5 trillion in global trade passing through it every year.
China’s President Xi Jinping had said last year the country has no plans to militarize the region, but has for some years been building infrastructure such as runways and port facilities that could be used for military purposes.
Reuters quoted a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman as saying that the “limited and necessary self-defense facilities” were “consistent with the right to self-protection that China is entitled to under international law, so there should be no question about it.” He added that “certain western media” should focus more on China’s building of lighthouses to improve shipping safety in the region.
The news broke just after the conclusion of a summit meeting in Washington between the U.S. and a bevy of South-East Asian countries, which (as usual) restated its official commitment “to maintain peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas.”