President Obama defended U.S. naval and aircraft operations near disputed South China Sea islands claimed by China on Tuesday as new intelligence revealed Beijing recently placed advanced air defense missiles in the Paracels.
"Freedom of navigation must be upheld," Obama said, adding "the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and we will support the right of all countries to do the same."
The remarks followed a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN, in Sunnylands, Calif. Obama and leaders from 10 ASEAN nations agreed to defend the sea from Chinese encroachment.
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"We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas," Obama said.
The president said the United States would continue to help regional states bolster maritime capabilities and resolve disputes peacefully and legally.
Obama said "the United States will continue to stand with those across Southeast Asia who are working to advance rule of law, good governance, accountable institutions, and the universal human rights of all people."
At the Pentagon, defense officials said recent intelligence revealed that China deployed advanced HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, in the Paracel island chain in the northwestern part of the sea.
The missile deployment was detected in the past several days, said officials familiar with reports of the deployment.
The buildup of air defense missiles highlights what defense officials said is China’s continuing militarization of disputed islands in the sea.
China has demanded a halt to all U.S. warship transits through the sea, and aerial reconnaissance flights over it.
The HQ-9, known as CSA-9 by the Pentagon, is an advanced anti-aircraft system that can also shoot down short-range missiles.
The missiles are likely to heighten tensions as they could be used against U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that frequently fly over the sea.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, said the HQ-9 is a formidable air defense missile that can cover 125 miles.
"We should not be surprised in the least about this turn of events, as it is in keeping with the strategic trend line of China’s ‘maritime sovereignty campaign’ that has been in place since 2010," Fanell told the Washington Free Beacon.
China’s Navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, announced last month that that China would determine when and how to justify the militarization of new islands. The missiles on Woody appear to be a first step, Fanell said.
"The question now remains whether or not the U.S., Japan, Australia, and the representatives of ASEAN will continue to accede to Beijing’s bullying or will they band together in a ‘unified front’ and begin conducting joint patrols within China’s unofficially asserted territorial seas," he said. "The time to act is fleeting, each hour, each day of delay will render the situation more dangerous or untenable."
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst, said the advanced missile deployment is a major military escalation by China in the South China Sea.
"China's deployment of up to 64 HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island just before the ASEAN summit in California constitutes a major slap against ASEAN and the Obama administration," said Fisher, who is associated with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
"It should now be clear that Obama administration diplomacy and freedom of navigation operations are useless in stopping China from militarizing its islands in the Paracel and Spratly island groups," he said.
China’s military has said the recent passage of a warship near Triton Island in the Parcels could trigger a further military buildup.
Fisher said China could supplement the HQ-9s with long-range YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missiles or DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, which have a range of 870 miles.
"Nobody is suggesting that the U.S. attack China's dangerous island bases, but the administration can deploy sufficient counterforce to deter China from using its bases," Fisher said.
China deployed J-11 jet fighters to Woody Island last October.
Two months later a U.S. B-52 bomber overflew the disputed Spratly Islands, drawing a sharp rebuke from China’s government.
The commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, has rejected China’s expansive South China Sea claims. Harris said in a recent speech that the South China Sea is "no more China's than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico's."
The Pentagon has said some $5.3 trillion in international trade passes through the sea each year.
China is claiming some 90 percent of the South China Sea as its maritime domain, and has built up some 3,200 acres of new islands where military facilities, including deepwater ports and airfields, are being built.
Woody Island, called Yongxing Island by China, is located about 100 miles southeast of Triton Island, where the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur made a close-in passage on Jan. 30. The Pentagon said the transit was designed to demonstrate freedom of navigation to three claimants to the island, China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
China has denied it is militarizing the sea and has criticized the United States for what it says are provocative freedom of navigation operations. In addition to the Curtis, the USS Lassen passed within 12 miles of Subi Reef in the Spratlys last October.
The HQ-9 deployment was first reported by Foxnews.com on Tuesday.
The missiles were revealed on commercial satellite imagery along a beach on Woody Island. The missiles were sent there between Feb. 3 and Feb. 14.
During a summit meeting between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Beijing leader promised not to militarize newly-created South China Sea islands.
It is not clear if the September commitment included Woody Island, about 1 square mile in size that has had a military garrison since 2012.
The Communist Party-affiliated newspaper Global Times published a commentary Saturday criticizing U.S. military operations in the South China Sea as a serious political and military provocation.
"On the surface, Washington calls for international laws and norms, such as freedom of navigation, to be the guiding principle in the South China Sea," wrote Zhang Tengjun, a research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.
"In fact, it tries to hype up China's ‘threat’ to regional security and ASEAN's interests so more ASEAN members will join a US-led front to counter China."