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China Places Surface-to-Air Missiles on South China Sea Islands

New satellite images indicate that the Chinese government has placed “an advanced surface-to-air missile system” on illegally constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea, threatening both the nations who claim that territory and any passersby navigating those international waters.

Fox News has published before-and-after satellite images of a beat in the Paracel Islands, contested by Taiwan and Vietnam, that show a once-empty beach laden with artillery. “The imagery from ImageSat International (ISI) shows two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers as well as a radar system on Woody Island,” Fox News notes, citing an independent U.S. “official” as confirming that the images indeed show a missile system. The official suggested the missiles could be part of the HQ-9 air defense system, which can hit targets up to 125 miles away.

The missiles were put on Woody Island sometime between February 3 and February 14, Fox News notes, recalling that the total amount of land China has so far usurped in the South China Sea exceeds 3,000 acres.

The report surfaces on the same day as the magazine The Diplomat publishes images that show Chinese construction expanding the limits of multiple islands in the Paracel chain, including Woody Island. Duncan Island, The Diplomat reported, boasted 50 percent more land than it had previously, and it appears that China is building a helicopter base there.

The projects in the Paracel Islands are alarming to those following Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, as much of Beijing’s construction in the region has been limited to the Spratly Islands, contested by Taiwan and the Philippines. China has built at least one airplane landing strip in the Spratlys, and satellite images released in December indicated that Beijing is seeking to quadruple its presence there, beginning the construction of three more landing strips.

While the total amount of territory China claims in the South China Sea overtakes claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei, Chinese officials have insisted that the entire sea was handed down “from our ancestors” and no other sovereign entity has control over the area. The Philippines have taken the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, where the case is pending. The Chinese government has insisted they will ignore any verdict The Hague issues on the matter. On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared the Hague case “invalid and unacceptable,” citing “the common sense argument that arbitration applications are usually lodged only when all other means are depleted.”

China has also insisted its development of the region is strictly civilian, claiming that the facilities on the Spratly Islands are for weather monitoring and civilian rescue. China also claimed eight months ago that it would halt construction projects in the region. “China will complete its reclamation project soon as part of its South China Sea construction in parts of the Nansha [Spratly] islands,” announced the Chinese Foreign Ministry in June 2015. China may be keeping to this promise by refocusing its efforts on the Paracel Islands.

American officials have stated the do not see an end to China’s expansionism in the region anytime soon. Last week, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress he believes China will not cease constructing facilities in the region. Concurrently, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) chief Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr. predicted the United States would engage in increasingly more “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea to challenge China’s territorial claims. “I think that as we continue down the path of freedom of navigations, you will see more of them, and you will see them increasing in complexity and scope in areas of challenge,” he stated.

The most recent American freedom of navigation operation occurred in January, when the USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands. Beijing called the move “dangerous and irresponsible.” Previously, the U.S. Navy sailed the USS Lassen within the same distance from the Spratly Islands in October. “If any country thinks that, through some gimmicks, they will be able to interfere with or even prevent China from engaging in reasonable, legitimate and legal activities in its own territories, I want to suggest those countries give up such fantasy,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said of that venture. American Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has repeatedly insisted that the Navy will “fly, sail, and operate wherever the law allows.”

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