Satellite images taken on Friday revealed that China has returned surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island in the Paracels, restoring them to exactly the same positions they occupied before tensions with the United States prompted Beijing to withdraw the weapons.
The South China Morning Post notes the missiles were seemingly removed after two American B-52 bombers flew over the Spratly Islands, to the great consternation of China.
Some analysts at the time suspected the missiles were not being withdrawn as a diplomatic gesture but were instead pulled off the line for maintenance at an opportune moment during typhoon season. The HQ-9 anti-aircraft missile system requires frequent maintenance when deployed close to the sea.
“The systems can be deployed, withdrawn and re-deployed whenever politically expedient, and they do not lend themselves easily to verification, compliance and enforcement processes that often characterize arms control,” research fellow Colin Koh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told the SCMP.
Asked about the militarization of the South China Sea last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying lashed out at the United States and blamed it for increasing tensions in the region.
“Isn’t it militarization when you send attacking weapons like the B-52 bombers to the South China Sea?” Hua asked. “If someone frequently flexes his muscles or snoops around near your house, shouldn’t you raise your alertness and improve your defense capabilities?”
The Philippine government certainly seems to think China deserves blame for making the South China Sea less pleasant. The Philippines asked China on Monday to stop seizing catches from Filipino fishermen working in the Scarborough Shoal. At least one such incident was caught on cellphone video taken by the fishermen in May.
“We have addressed this issue to the Chinese and we are demanding that the Chinese take steps to stop the coastguard from doing these acts,” said Harry Roque, a spokesman for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
“That is unacceptable. That is why we informed the Chinese we will not allow fish to be taken from our countrymen,” Roque added. However, he came up short of describing the seizures as harassment or theft, noting that video of the incident showed Chinese sailors giving the clearly intimidated Filipinos food and cigarettes in “trade” for their fish.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded that it has been investigating the reports and would deal “seriously” with coast guard personnel if they are confirmed.
“Out of friendship, China has made proper arrangements for Filipino fishermen. The Chinese coast guard is monitoring relevant waters to ensure peace and order in the area, and also offers humanitarian assistance to the Philippines fishermen. The Chinese coast guard always abides by the law,” the Foreign Ministry insisted.