In a significant development that could escalate tensions in the region, China has deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of the disputed islands it controls in the South China Sea, according to Taiwan and US officials. The move came even as US President Barack Obama urged restraint in the region at the US-ASEAN summit.
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry spokesman Major General David Lo said that the missile batteries had been set up on Woody Island. The island is part of the Paracels chain, that has been under Chinese control for more than 40 years, but it is also contested by Taiwan and Vietnam. “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,” Mr Lo said on February 17.
More than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year through South China Sea. China has been building runways and other infrastructure on artificial islands to consolidate its position in the disputed region.
A US Navy destroyer had sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels chain in January, a move that the Pentagon said was aimed at countering efforts by China to limit freedom of navigation. As expected China had condemned the US action and termed it provocative.
At the US-ASEAN summit, US President Barack Obama said: “Freedom of navigation must be upheld, and lawful commerce should not be impeded. I reiterated that the United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and we will support the right of all countries to do the same.”
Speaking about the move by China, Taiwan’s President-elect Tsai Ing-wen said tensions were now higher in the region. “We urge all parties to work on the situation based on principles of peaceful solution and self-control,” Ms Tsai said.
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