China has sought to downplay reports that it had positioned anti-aircraft missiles on a disputed South China Sea island, accusing the media of hyping the issue.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence 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 Philippines said the development increased regional tensions.
The move would follow China’s building of new islands in the disputed sea by piling sand on top of reefs and then adding airstrips and military installations.
They are seen as part of Beijing’s efforts to claim virtually the entire South China Sea and its resources, which has prompted some of its wary neighbours to draw closer to the US.
But Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said of the missile claims: “We believe this is an attempt by certain Western media to create news stories.”
Echoing claims that the development was largely civilian oriented and benefited the region, Mr Wang pointed to the construction of lighthouses, weather stations, and rescue and shelter facilities for fishermen.
“All of those are actions that China, as the biggest littoral state in the South China Sea, has undertaken to provide more public goods and services to the international community and play its positive role there,” he added.
Mr Wang said China’s construction of military infrastructure was “consistent with the right to self-preservation and self-protection that China is entitled to under international law, so there should be no question about that.”
Called Yongxingdao by China, Woody island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. Along with an artificial harbour, it boasts an airport, roads, army posts and other buildings and recent satellite imagery appears to show it is adding a helicopter base likely dedicated to anti-submarine warfare missions.
Taiwan and China claim almost the whole 3.5 million square kilometre South China Sea, including the Paracel chain.
Vietnam and the Philippines claim much of the ocean as well.