WASHINGTON—US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday slammed China for its increased militarization in the South China Sea, after Beijing deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island there.
“There is every evidence, every day, that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of a serious concern,” Kerry told reporters.
A US official said China has deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands chain.
The official said the missiles appeared to be HQ-9s, which have a range of about 125 miles (200 kilometers).
Experts say they could be used to target enemy aircraft.
Fox News first reported missile launchers and a radar system had arrived on Woody Island in recent days, referring to satellite imagery. Taiwan’s defense ministry later confirmed the facility’s existence.
“We believe the photos are accurate and that China has deployed SAMs to Woody Island,” the US official said.
Beijing has controlled all of the Paracels, which are also claimed by Hanoi and Taipei, since seizing several from South Vietnam in a brief, bloody battle towards the end of the Vietnam War.
But tensions in the sea—through which a third of the world’s oil passes—have mounted in recent months since China transformed contested reefs in the Spratly islands further south into artificial islands capable of supporting military facilities.
Washington says the move threatens free passage in a strategically vital area and has sent warships to sail close to the disputed islands to assert freedom of navigation, raising fears of escalation.
“We have said repeatedly with respect to China that the standard that should be applied to all countries with respect to the South China Sea is no militarization,” Kerry said.
The secretary of state recalled that during a state visit to Washington last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed not to militarize in the disputed waters.
“We had these conversations with the Chinese and I’m confident that over the next days, we will have further very serious conversations on this,” Kerry said.
The top US diplomat expressed hope that Beijing would work to resolve the maritime disputes “not through unilateral action, not through force, not through militarization but through diplomacy and by working with other countries and claimants.”
On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama called for “tangible steps” to lower tensions in the South China Sea.
Beijing, meanwhile, has insisted it has the right to build self-defense systems in the region.
The Philippines on Thursday threw its support behind a US and European Union call to China to respect the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on Manila’s territorial dispute with Beijing.
“The Philippines has always maintained the position that all claimant-states to the resource-rich waters should adhere to the rule of law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], and must not use force or intimidation and adhere to the principles of a non-binding and non-aggression pact on the South China Sea that was signed in 2002 by China and Southeast Asian states,” the Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement.
The DFA said that is has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China.
The US and EU also warned China to respect the Netherland-based tribunal’s ruling, which is expected later this year.
The Philippine filed a case against China before the The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, where it is seeking interpretation of its maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, which is being claimed nearly in its entirety by China.
“A final decision may be rendered by the court in May,” the DFA said.
China rejects the authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague hearing the dispute, even though Beijing has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on which the case is based.
According to a report, Amy Searight, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said the United States, the European Union, and allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea must be ready to make clear that the court’s ruling must be binding and that there would be costs to China for not respecting it if it lost the case.
“We need to be ready to be very loud and vocal, in harmony together, standing behind the Philippines and the rest of the Asean claimants to say that this is international law, this is incredibly important, it is binding on all parties,” she told a seminar at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Searight said the message to China, if it did not respect a negative ruling, should be, “we will hold you accountable.”
“Certainly, reputational cost is at stake, but we can think of other creative ways to perhaps impose costs as well,” she said without elaborating.
The Hague tribunal has no powers of enforcement and its rulings have been ignored before.
China disputes South China Sea territory with several other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as the Philippines.
Klaus Botzet, head of the political section of the EU Delegation in Washington, said it was difficult to oppose world opinion.
“A joint Western, a joint world opinion, matters also for Beijing,” he said.
“If we unanimously support that international law as formulated by the international tribunal in the Hague … needs to be upheld, that’s a very strong message and will be very difficult to ignore,” he said.
In unusually forthright language, Botzet said China’s policy of military buildup was not in its interest.
“It’s investing much more in its military relative to its economic growth; it’s forcing its neighbors into alliances against itself; positions its neighbors otherwise wouldn’t take and the return on investment on this policy is negative,” he said.
The United States had exceptional military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific, Botzet said, adding that the European Union “strongly supports the American guarantee of international law in Asia.”
A leftist lawmaker on Thursday sounded the alarm over the reported Chinese missile deployments.
“We are very much alarmed with China’s aggressive efforts to assert its claim in the disputed seas,” said Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon.
“While the Paracel Islands are not part of the Philippines’ claimed territory, the presence of Chinese military armaments in a location dangerously near the boundaries of the West Philippine Sea is a cause for alarm for our country. We are concerned that in no time, Beijing will also treacherously build missile launchers in Philippine territory,” Ridon added.