A Chinese surface-to-air missile system on a contested island in the South China Sea came to light while United States President Barack Obama wrapped up a maritime peace meet with Southeast Asian leaders on February 15-16, 2016. Fresh evidence of China “militarizing” despite its denials has thrown a wet rag on the summit’s aim in Sunnylands, California, to calm the waters of the South China Sea.
According to Fox News, ImageSat International (ISI) shots reveal two batteries of eight Chinese surface-to-air missile launchers, as well as a radar system, on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea. A U.S. Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Curtis Wilbur, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, another disputed island in the same chain on January 30, 2016, to which China threatened “consequences.”
Obama hosted 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the U.S. for the first time as news of the Chinese surface-to-air missiles unfolded. In August 2015, ASEAN countries Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam jointly expressed their concerns over China’s unilateral projects in the South China Sea.
Two countries claiming exclusive economic zone (EEZ) violations by China are Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnam has already engaged in military confrontations with China over contested reefs, resulting in Vietnamese lives lost. The Philippines, handicapped by a constitution that renounces war as an instrument of national policy, has sought other solutions.
Antonio T. Carpio, Senior Associate Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, found China guilty of “grand theft of the global commons” but offered an olive branch. He urged China to join the Philippines in declaring the South China Sea a sanctuary for fish and part of the global commons. His words fell on deaf ears, as the Philippines sought arbitration with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (U.N.C.L.O.S.) in which China refused to participate.
According to CNN, the Chinese Defense Ministry said on February 17 that military facilities have existed on the islands for years but did not specify the surface-to-air missiles identified by Taiwan officials and backed by satellite imagery suggesting recent deployment. China has occupied Woody Island, also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, for 50 years.
At the ASEAN summit held in California, Obama insisted that disputes must be resolved by legal means, such as the case of the Philippines challenging China’s sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea. While China pointedly ignores the U.N.C.L.O.S. proceedings and Chinese surface-to-air missile launchers stay in position, the parties named for arbitration are obligated to respect the ruling due in a few months.
Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, Philippine Western Command (WestCom) chief, has declared the Chinese surface-to-air missile and radar system in the disputed Paracels, a serious threat to regional security. In a February 18 interview reported by InterAksyon.com, Lopez said the following.
“If you deploy such sophisticated armament, that means your intention is to use it. If so, it really impacts on the security of the region.”
Lopez reasoned that although the range of the Chinese surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island falls short of the Philippines, the threat is still the same. Any civilian aircraft passing through claimed Chinese airspace could get challenged and be endangered, he suggested.
Justice Carpio, whose lecture series on the South China Sea dispute has stretched across Australia, the Americas and Europe, sees the Chinese surface-to-air missile system on Woody Island as an extension of his narrative. He released the following statement on Friday, February 19.
“The deployment of the anti-aircraft missiles is part of China’s grand design to control the South China Sea for economic and military purposes. We will see more Chinese military assets deployed in the South China Sea in the months ahead. In particular, China will operationalize this year its air and naval bases in the Spratlys. China will also transfer its dredgers in the Spratlys to Scarborough Shoal to reclaiming Scarborough Shoal and convert it into an air and naval base.”
In a Reuters report, White House officials allege pressure by China on countries such as Cambodia and Laos not to sign a statement by the ASEAN summit against Chinese maritime offenses. Now, the Chinese surface-to-air missile launchers on Woody Island have come to public attention.
[Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images]