China's apparent decision to deploy Russian-made surface-to-air missiles in the Paracel Islands has increased regional tensions in the disputed South China Sea, coveted for its potential oil and gas resources.
The focus this time is on Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Island group, which has been under the control of Beijing since 1956, and has an artificial harbor capable of docking vessels up to 5,000 metric tons.
While the presence of missiles on Woody Island has been debated, China this week appeared to confirm the existence of defense weapons when Global Times quoted the Defense Ministry as saying it is lawful for China "to deploy defense facilities within its territory, and the facilities have existed for years."
On Wednesday, the United States joined Taiwan and a U.S. news media outlet Fox News in confirming the existence of Chinese HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on the same island. China's claim to most of the South China Sea, a vital international waterway, and its construction of artificial islands and an airstrip in the Spratly Islands, has raised alarm bells in Southeast Asia, where there are competing maritime claims, and in Washington.
Presence still disputed
But some experts doubt China's assertion that the weapons are even present.
According to Professor Wu Shicun, director of the Hainan Province-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies, there is no need for China to deploy ground-to-air missiles on Woody Island, because China doesn't face air threats from nearby countries. He also described Woody Island as "small both in size and population," a place where is would be "hard to hide the missiles."
“The report that China has deployed missiles on Woody Island may be speculation," he told VOA's Mandarin Service. "Its truthfulness is questionable because I recently visited the Island. The photo provided by the media shows a large beach. As far as I know, there is no large beach."
While China has promised not to militarize the newly-built artificial terrain near the Spratly Islands — some 740 kilometers southeast of Woody Island, largely within China’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone — Beijing, says Wu, never said it wouldn't militarize the Paracels.
"When President Xi Jinping visited the United States last September, he promised President Obama not to engage in militarization of the South China Sea. What he meant was not to militarize the newly-built artificial islands near Spratly Islands," said Wu. "He was referring to the seven islands and reefs where China was doing construction."
“Even if China deployed missiles on the Islands, it is beyond reproach," he said, calling Chinese sovereignty of the Paracels "without controversy."
"The deployment of missiles in the Paracel Islands isn't necessarily linked to the militarization of the South China Sea," he said. "It is the United States who is engaged in the militarization of the South China Sea. In 1959, China set up government offices in the Paracel Islands, and in 1974 China acquired and obtained full control.
“China is most concerned about the freedom of navigation in the South China that any other country," he added. "Eighty percent of China's trade is maritime trade, and 80 percent of its maritime trade goes through the South China Sea channel."
Although Woody Island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, in 1974, the then South Vietnamese government suffered a naval loss to China in a battle over the Paracels.
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia security analyst with Australia's Defense Force Academy in Canberra, says China’s long-standing control of the islands contrasts with other disputed territories in the region.
"China, from its point of view, would be legitimately, just completely upset by any challenge in the Paracels," he said. "The last time the Vietnamese were there was in January 1974 and the Chinese [expelled] them. But the Republic of China had abandoned its islands in about 1950, after the civil war ended and the [Communist] mainland took them over and, in a sense, the militarization question has not been raised with the Paracels. It's a bit late now. There are military bases [there] – it’s a garrison.”
Vietnam has not issued any official statements on the missiles, but Dr. Tran Cong Truc, former head of Vietnam's Border Affairs Committee, told VOA’s Vietnamese Service that China’s action is “a new military escalation.”
The former official says Beijing “challenges not only other claimants like Vietnam but other outsiders like the United States, which conducted freedom of navigation near China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.”
“It is a serious and dangerous move," he said. "The deployment is a step towards China’s total occupation of the South China Sea. It is not a surprise move as China has been using its power in disputed waters. They would continue to forcefully do that in the future.”
The former top border official also said the deployment might spark an arms race in Asia, and lead to China’s unilateral establishment of Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea.
“Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines will try, by all means, to beef up their defense to counter threats from China,” Truc said.
During a recent meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of this week's ASEAN summit in California, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged Washington to play a greater role in preventing militarization and island-building in the South China Sea, the government said on Tuesday.
In another move that analysts say might concern Vietnam, China recently promoted General Li Zuocheng, a decorated hero of the Sino-Vietnamese war, to head ground forces as Commander of the People’s Liberation Army.
Duong Danh Dy, Vietnam's former consul general in Guangzhou, says Vietnam must “note this appointment.”
“Those who once fought with Vietnamese soldiers obviously know more about Vietnam’s army," said Dy. "The promotion shows that Beijing always keeps the focus on Vietnam in its military strategy development.”
The veteran analyst adds that China will never cease its expansion over the disputed waters.
On Wednesday, top State Department officials reiterated U.S. support for stability in the region. China expert Bonnie Glaser of the Washington-based Centers for Strategic and International Studies told VOA the missile deployment is just another step in China's steady buildup of military capabilities in the region.
China's neighbors with competing regional claims, she said, are "doing more by themselves with other nations and the United States to defend their interests," which is something "China does not want to see."
Victor Beattie contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin and Vietnamese services.