- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The clash between China and the U.S. over who will control the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, escalated Wednesday as Secretary of State John F. Kerry lashed out at Beijing after the Obama administration said it confirmed reports that China had deployed advanced surface-to-air missiles on a built-up island it occupies in the contested sea.

China struck back forcefully a day after President Obama met with a group of Southeast Asian leaders, accusing Washington and its allies in the region of making exaggerated claims in a bid to isolate China.

Mr. Kerry said administration officials intend to have a “very serious conversation” over the matter with their counterparts in Beijing and suggested that Chinese President Xi Jingping reneged on a promise he made during a visit to the White House in September.

“When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize the South China Sea,” the secretary of state told reporters. “But there is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another.”

Mr. Kerry made the comments after Taiwanese officials said the Chinese navy had set up surface-to-air missile batteries on Woody Island, a tiny patch within the South China Sea’s Paracels chain that has been under effective Chinese control for decades but is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

A U.S. defense official also confirmed the “apparent deployment” of the missiles, first reported by Fox News.

Beijing denied the reports, asserting that defense facilities on “relevant islands and reefs” had been in place for many years. The Chinese Defense Ministry also said in a statement that Western media reports of a missile deployment were “hype” aimed at stoking regional fears toward China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that the “limited and necessary self-defense facilities” China had on islands and reefs where it has personnel stationed was “consistent with the right to self-protection that China is entitled to under international law.”

The Chinese government claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year, and has been building runways and other infrastructure on artificial islands to bolster its case. Other regional powers, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan, have clashing claims to various parts of the sea.

The United States claims no territory in the South China Sea but worries that China’s increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims there could affect the vital global trade routes that pass though it.

Raising the stakes

The Obama administration has raised the stakes in recent months by sending guided missile destroyers USS Lassen and USS Curtis Wilbur close to disputed areas occupied by Beijing.

The United States also has conducted sea and air patrols near artificial islands that China has built in the Spratly Islands chain farther south in the South China Sea, including by two B-52 strategic bombers in November, and President Obama underscored U.S. determination in a Tuesday press conference.

“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,” Mr. Obama said at the conclusion of his summit with Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders in California.

Chinese officials have criticized U.S. actions as provocative.

An analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations outlined the stakes for the global economy if a maritime clash erupts in the region.

“A crisis that closed part of the South China Sea, even for a few days, could cause serious damage to the international economy because the sea is so vital to shipping and there are few real alternative routes for trade,” Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia with the Washington-based think tank, wrote in the September report.

He noted that “more than half of the world’s trade in liquid natural gas and over 33 percent of trade in crude oil” passes through the South China Sea annually.

Although analysts said the latest developments are unlikely to trigger a major military escalation, there was uncertainty Wednesday over how some of the smaller nations on China’s periphery might respond.

There was no immediate reaction from the government in Vietnam, where leaders have been among the most vocally opposed to Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea during recent years. Vietnamese leaders are usually wary of provoking a giant neighbor with which it shares over $60 billion of annual trade and maintains close ideological ties.

Still, tensions have grown increasingly heated over the sovereignty dispute.

More than 100 people gathered Wednesday in Hanoi to commemorate the 37th anniversary of Vietnam’s border war with China. Demonstrators at the rally were reportedly heard chanting the Vietnamese names of the South China Sea’s Paracel and Spratly island chains.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made headlines at the start of this week’s summit with Mr. Obama by calling for a greater U.S. role in preventing Chinese militarization of the sea.

Mr. Obama did not explicitly mention China in his remarks on the South China Sea, but he offered an implicit reprimand by suggesting that Beijing’s construction of artificial islands and naval bases in the South China Sea is destabilizing the region.

China is not a member of ASEAN, and officials in Beijing often accuse Washington of using the bloc — which includes Vietnam, the Philippines and several other smaller nations — to expand the U.S. naval footprint in East Asia.

A joint statement issued by the U.S. and the ASEAN nations on Tuesday called for territorial disputes in the region to be resolved based on international law and “without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

Some analysts believe China’s increasing military presence in the South China Sea could be the prelude to a Beijing-controlled air defense zone there.

The missile deployment “reinforces the view that China intends to exert growing control in these international waters, including potentially by declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone,” Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, told the Reuters news agency.

Fox News reported Tuesday evening that images from civilian satellite firm ImageSat International show two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers on Woody Island, as well as a radar system.

The missiles arrived in the past week, and a U.S. official said they appeared to show the HQ-9 air defense system, which has a range of 125 miles and would pose a threat to any airplanes flying close by, the report said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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