China has deployed long-range anti-aircraft missiles on a disputed South China Sea island also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, a media report said on Wednesday, even as US President Barack Obama called for "tangible steps" to settle territorial disputes in the resource-rich region.
Satellite images showed two batteries of eight surface-to-air HQ-9 missile launchers as well as a radar system on Woody
Island, part of the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea, Fox News reported.
According to the images, a beach on the island was empty on 3 February but the missiles were visible by 14 February. A US official said the imagery showed the HQ-9 air defence system with a range of over 200 kilometres, which would pose a threat to any civilian or military airplane flying close by, the report said.
It is the same island where a US Navy destroyer sailed close to another contested island a few weeks ago. Woody Island is part of the Paracels chain, under Chinese control for more than 40 years also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The
missiles arrived over the past week.
The move comes as President Obama hosts 10 Asian leaders in California, many of those concerned over China's recent
activity in the South China Sea. The US will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and will support the right of all countries to do the same, Obama said yesterday, as he called for "tangible steps" to reduce tensions in the disputed and natural resource-rich South China Sea.
The Pentagon was watching the developments closely, a defence official told the news channel."The US continues to call on all claimants to halt land reclamation, construction, and militarisation of features in the South China Sea," the official said.
In the past two years, China has built over 3,000 acres of territory atop seven reefs in the area. There are a total of three runways built on three of the artificial islands, the report said.
China has said that it has a historical right to all of the South China Sea. Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim land feature in these potentially resource-rich international shipping lanes.
Taiwan said on Wednesday that China had positioned anti-aircraft missiles on a disputed South China Sea island claimed also by Taiwan and Vietnam and watched closely by Washington.
Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense said in a statement it had "grasped that Communist China had deployed" an unspecified number of missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel group.
The move would follow China's efforts to build new islands in the disputed sea by piling sand atop reefs and then adding airstrips and military installations. The most dramatic work has taken place in the Spratly Island group, where the militaries of four nations have a presence, although similar work has also gone on at Woody and other Chinese holdings in the Paracels.
"The military will pay close attention to subsequent developments," the ministry's statement said. Relevant parties should "work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region to refrain from any unilateral measure that would increase tensions," the statement added.
China's move is likely to rattle Vietnam the most because of its proximity to the Paracels and because of a history of maritime tensions with China that culminated in 2014 with a standoff after China moved a massive oil rig into disputed waters.
China's moves to assert its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea are expected to be discussed during a visit by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to Beijing on Wednesday.
In an interview Monday on Japanese TV, Bishop said Australia called on all parties to cease construction work and militarization of the islands.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei responded by saying Australia should adopt an "objective and unbiased attitude" toward South China Sea matters.
Inputs from agencies