Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday sought to downplay reports that China had positioned anti-aircraft missiles on a disputed South China Sea island, accusing the media of hyping the issue and saying more attention should be paid to what he called "public goods and services" provided by China's development of its maritime claims.
Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense 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 atop 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 neighbors to draw closer to the U.S.
The most dramatic work has taken place in the Spratly Island group, where the militaries of four nations have a presence, although similar work has also gone on at Woody and other Chinese holdings in the Paracels.
"The military will pay close attention to subsequent developments," the Taiwanese ministry statement said. Relevant parties should "work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region to refrain from any unilateral measure that would increase tensions," the statement added.
U.S. network Fox News also said China had moved surface-to-air missiles to the Paracels, identifying them as two batteries of the HQ-9 system, along with radar targeting arrays. The missiles have a range of about 200 kilometers (125 miles), making them a threat to all forms of civilian and military aircraft.
Following talks with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, Wang said he had become aware of the missile reports just minutes before.
"We believe this is an attempt by certain Western media to create news stories," Wang said.
Echoing claims that the development was largely civilian oriented and benefited the region, Wang pointed to the construction of light houses, 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," Wang said.
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."
Bishop reiterated that, like the U.S., Australia does not take sides on the issue of sovereignty, but urges all sides to maintain peace and stability. Australia welcomes statements by Chinese President Xi Jinping that "China does not intend to militarize these islands," she said.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said he was unable to confirm the missile reports, but added the issue "concerns me greatly."
"This could be an indication, if there are missiles there, it could be an indication of militarization of the South China Sea in ways that the president of China, that President Xi said he would not do," Harris said.
Called Yongxingdao by China, Woody island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. Along with an artificial harbor, 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-kilometer (1.35 million-square-mile) South China Sea, including the Paracel chain. Vietnam and the Philippines claim much of the ocean, as well. Brunei and Malaysia have smaller claims.
Home to some of the world's busiest sea lanes, the ocean is also rich in fisheries and may hold oil and natural gas reserves under the seabed.
China's move is likely to rattle Vietnam the most because of its proximity to the Paracels and because of a history of maritime tensions with China that spiked in 2014 with a standoff after China moved a massive oil rig into disputed waters.
China regards Australia and the U.S. as unwelcome outside interlopers in regional waters. Wang and Bishop engaged in a testy exchange in December 2013 after Australia criticized China's unilateral declaration of an air defense zone in the East China Sea.
Ahead of Bishop's visit, President Barack Obama and the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations called Tuesday for the peaceful resolution of the region's maritime disputes.
Obama told a news conference that disputes must be resolved by legal means, including a case brought by the Philippines challenging China's sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea.
China has refused to take part in the proceedings, but Obama said parties to the U.N. law of the seas are obligated to respect the ruling, expected later this year.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the deployment of missiles on Woody Island "increases tensions in the South China Sea."
Analysts say China's military moves in the South China Sea are primarily aimed at intimidating the Philippines and Vietnam, while solidifying its hold on the islands and boosting its ability to project force.
That is meanwhile strengthening those in the U.S., especially in the Pentagon, who "will want to more vigorously challenge China," said Thomas Berger, an expert on the region at Boston University.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported last month after the US naval ship patrolled near the disputed Triton Island in the South China Sea, Obama doesn't want to provoke military confrontation with China in his last year in office.
In fact, prior to the first of these patrols, which took place last October, the Pentagon was ready for months to take action, but ran into “repeated stalling” from the White House and State Department, according to Reuters.
“The concern was that, if we looked like we were responding to something the Chinese had done, it would undermine our assertion that this is a matter of international law, and our rights to navigate the seas,” said a US Defense Department official.
Thus, the US strategy now. The aim, in undertaking these naval patrols, is to assert “freedom of navigation” (FON), “to ensure that U.S. naval, coast guard, and civilian ships, and by extension those of all nations, maintain unrestricted access to their rights at sea," while doing so in such a manner that averts military conflict with China, explain Michael J. Green, Bonnie S. Glaser, and Gregory B. Poling in an article for the CSIS.
Jennings reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Tran Van Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, also contributed.