China appears to have taken a new, controversial step in its already contentious South China Sea renovation project, with recent satellite images showing the arrival of a surface-to-air missile system on one of the disputed islands.
This news likely does not bode well for already rising tensions in the region where Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia all hold competing claims to a vast area that China claims as its own, dating back to ancient times.
Images taken by a private company ImageSat International appear to show two batteries of eight missile launchers and a radar system newly arrived on Woody Island (Yongxing Island) in the Paracels. On February 3rd, the beach appeared to be empty, while images of the same area from February 14th show the presence of a missile system, Fox News reports.
A US official told Fox News that the images appear to show the HQ-9 air defense system, which has a range of 125 miles (200km) and would pose a threat to any nearby planes.
The move has also been confirmed by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, which says that it has first-hand intelligence on the existence of the missile batteries and is closely monitoring the situation.
Yesterday, US President Barack Obama called for a “halt to reclamation, new construction and militarization” of the South China Sea at a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders in California. The US believes that China’s aggressive South China Sea claims threaten freedom of navigation in the busy shipping area. They have therefore sent out military patrols close to the islands to test the waters, enraging China.
Beijing has claimed time and again that they have no intention of militarizing the island and has accused the US of being “the biggest cause of militarization in the South China Sea.”
Here’s what a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday:
We’ve repeatedly stated our stance; the constructions on relevant islands by China are mainly to provide more public service to the international community as well as to facilitate rescue, fishery and medical operations.
The relevant facilities will be used by the international community when needed. At the same time, we want to emphasize that the installation of military facilities is for self-defense, a right that China has in accordance with international law. It will not affect the freedom of navigation and overflight that all other countries are entitled to under international law.
In the past two years, China has built more than 3,000 acres of territory on seven reefs in the South China Sea. Despite protests from neighboring nations, they have constructed runways on three of the artificial islands, allowing tourists to arrive and visit this land of cute female soldiers and veggie gardens.
Woody Island has particularly been an area of strategic interest, with a fueling station planned for the island defended by the “Sirens of the South China Sea.”