China’s foreign minister will visit Washington next week amid rising tensions over the deployment of advanced Chinese air defense missiles on a disputed South China Sea island.
In Beijing, meanwhile, a foreign ministry spokesman on Friday fired back at U.S. criticism of the deployment of HQ-9 missiles on Woody Island in the Parcels, accusing the United States of militarizing the region.
State Department spokesmen had no immediate comment.
Wang Yi, the foreign minister, is scheduled to arrive early next week for talks with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Obama administration officials familiar with the visit said.
The deployment of missiles in the South China Sea is expected to be the main topic of discussions, the officials said.
Wang is expected to voice China’s opposition to U.S. warship passages in the sea and reconnaissance and bomber flights over the islands.
The Chinese minister is also expected to oppose Pentagon plans to deploy one of its most advanced missile defense systems in South Korea, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
Talks on the deployment were set to begin this week, and the Pentagon has said it wants to field the system soon.
China has called THAAD deployment in Korea a threat to Chinese security, asserting that the system’s radar can track nearby Chinese missiles.
At the Pentagon on Friday, spokesman Peter Cook said the missile deployment would not alter military operations in the South China Sea.
"We will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and that includes in the South China Sea in that part of the world," Cook said.
"It does not alter our own operations, and it will not. … But obviously, we still have a significant concern about this particular placement at this particular moment in time."
The Pentagon is monitoring the missiles.
"We think it only adds to greater instability in the region and destabilizes a situation that already we have seen tensions rise in recent weeks and months because of Chinese actions, and we think that the placement of this particular system, at this particular moment in time only makes that situation worse," Cook said.
Kerry this week condemned the HQ-9 missile deployment and promised "very serious" talks with the Chinese on the issue. The secretary said Wednesday that the deployment violated a promise by Chinese leader Xi Jinping not to militarize newly created South China Sea islands.
"I'm confident that over the next days we will have further, very serious conversation on this," Kerry said.
"And my hope is that China will realize that it is important to try to resolve the jurisdictional issues of the South China Sea not through unilateral action, not through force, not through militarization, but through diplomacy and by working with the other countries and claimants in trying to resolve these differences," he said.
In Beijing on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China’s commitment not militarize disputed islands is "earnest and serious."
"However, the current situation is that the United States keeps enhancing military deployment in the South China Sea, frequently dispatches warships and military aircraft to enter the waters of the South China Sea, carries out high-frequency military reconnaissance that is close to China, on many occasions it dispatched missile destroyers and strategic bombers to the airspace and waters near or inside relevant islands and reefs of China's Nansha Islands," Lei said at a press briefing.
"And time and again [the United States] makes inducement and applies pressure on its allies and partners to engage in highly-targeted ‘joint military exercise’ and ‘joint patrols’ in the South China Sea," he added, noting the action "intensified [a] tense situation in the South China Sea."
Lei said it is the United States that is "engaging in ‘militarization’ in the South China Sea."
China has been building defense facilities for several decades on the island China calls Yongxing, he said.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that Wang said the deployment of "limited and necessary national defense facilities" in the Paracels is "in line with the self-preservation and self-defense rights every sovereign country is entitled to under the international law, which is blameless and has nothing to do with militarization."
In Tokyo on Wednesday, U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris, at a meeting with Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, said the missile deployment contradicted a pledge Xi made not to militarize disputed South China Sea islands.
In San Diego, the commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet said Thursday the deployment of HQ-9s had been carried out twice in the past for exercises.
However, the most recent dispatch of the missiles appears not be associated with any exercise, he said.
"So that context is important. This isn't exactly something that's new," Adm. Scott Swift said, according to Military.com.
"So the real question is, ‘What's the intent? How long is it going to be there? Is this a permanent forward deployment of this weapons system or not?'" Swift said. "So it's a series of questions that we need to generate and ask ourselves."
The islands dispute has raised tensions since China in the past several years has dredged 3,200 acres in the Parcels and Spratlys islands and has now begun building deep-water ports for warships, and airfields for military aircraft.
The missile dispute surfaced early this week with new intelligence indicating HQ-9 components had been unloaded on a beach on Woody Island.
"Commercial imagery indicates that China has deployed a surface-to-air missile system on a disputed outpost in the South China Sea," Pentagon spokesman Cmd. Bill Urban said. "We are concerned that these actions are increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive."
The HQ-9 deployment triggered a backlash from states in the region that criticized China for raising tensions.
Vietnam, which claims it owns the Paracels where the missiles are deployed, called it a serious violation of sovereignty.
"Vietnam is deeply concerned about the actions by China. These are serious infringements of Vietnam's sovereignty over the Paracels, threatening peace and stability in the region as well as security, safety and freedom of navigation and flight," Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said in a statement.
"Vietnam demands China immediately stop such erroneous actions."
The statement was reported in the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien Online.
Vietnam has filed formal diplomatic protests with the Chinese government and United Nations, the statement said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week that U.S. military activities in the South China Sea are "not militarization."
"This situation is growing tense," Kirby said Thursday. "And the chief reason is because of the fabrication of man-made features by China and militarization of them. That's the chief reason."
The Philippines government also criticized the HQ-9 deployment, voicing grave concerns that China was violating a promise not to militarize its islands.
"These developments further erode trust and confidence and aggravate the already tense situation in the region. It is a clear violation of the [declaration of the conduct of parties] and other relevant [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]-China declarations and statements," the Department Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
"They put into question the good faith of China to work with ASEAN for the early conclusion of the [code of conduct], and to cooperate in the efforts of all parties to find ways forward on the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas]," the statement said.
The governments of Australia and India also said the missile deployment could raise tensions in the region.
Chinese state media also ratcheted up the rhetoric.
The Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said Chinese forces should fire warning shots and conducting ramming operations of U.S. warship ships.
"Proper toughness and deterrence will be good for peace," the report said.
The Chinese Defense Ministry played down the HQ-9 deployment calling it part of Western news media hyping the "China threat."
Former State Department China analyst John J. Tkacik said the Obama administration is reacting "in full deer-in-the-headlights mode, totally reflexive and not thinking even one move ahead."
"At the very least, Washington has to meet China’s expansion in the sea with a beefier doctrine that the United States has a ‘core interest’" protecting international transit in the sea, Tkacik said.
"Alas, if the Obama administration isn't clear intramurally on what America's own policies are, it is ill-equipped to even sit down at a table and discuss it with the Chinese foreign minister much less negotiate anything meaningful. I have a bad feeling about this," he said.