China has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles on a disputed South China Sea island and the missiles are raising new concerns in the Pentagon over Beijing’s growing militarization of the vital strategic waterway.
Defense officials confirmed that China’s military recently test-fired a YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missile from Woody Island, in the Paracels located in the northern part of the South China Sea.
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At the Pentagon, spokesman Peter Cook declined to confirm the cruise missile deployment but said reports of the test firing has increased worries about Chinese military activities.
"I can't get into intelligence matters from here," Cook said of the cruise deployments.
"But obviously, as we have been talking about for some time, anything, any steps by any of the players in that part of the world, China or otherwise, to militarize those features that are in dispute, those islands in dispute, would be a concern to us," he told reporters at the Pentagon.
President Obama and Southeast Asian leaders during the recent summit meeting in California voiced support for freedom of navigation and overflight and "unimpeded lawful commerce, as well as non- militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities in that part of the world," Cook said.
"This is something that we've stressed repeatedly with the Chinese, particularly the question militarization," he added. "And it is a concern for us, and something clearly at the top of our agenda as we engage with the Chinese."
Cook said militarization is raising tensions and decreasing stability in a waterway the Pentagon has said hosts $5.3 trillion in annual trade, including $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade.
Officials identified the offensive missiles as YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missiles.
A test-firing of the cruise missile on Woody Island was disclosed March 21 on a Chinese military enthusiasts’ website called Dingsheng.
The posting included a photo of a YJ-62 being launched from a missile encampment on Woody Island, which China calls Yongxing Island.
The posting stated that the missile was fired by a People’s Liberation Army South Sea Fleet shore-based missile unit. It also included an aerial photo of the island with diagrams showing the launch location.
The deployment of Chinese anti-ship missiles on Woody Island follows reports last month that China has deployed advanced air defense missiles on Woody Island and represents a further militarization of disputed islands in the sea.
The HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles were photographed in commercial satellite imagery along the beach on Woody Island.
Rick Fisher, an expert on the Chinese military, said the YJ-62 is a land-based version of the missile deployed on China’s Type 052C guided missile destroyers, ships that are known to be equipped with advanced electronics similar to U.S. Aegis battle-management equipped warships.
"It is likely that the PLA Navy deployed the YJ-62 to Woody Island at about the same time that HQ-9 anti-aircraft missile were seen on the island, perhaps some time in 2015," Fisher said.
The deployment of the anti-ship missiles, with a range of 248.5 miles, "now completes a template for the three new bases in the Spratly Island group," Fisher said.
"They too will soon be equipped with combat aircraft, anti-aircraft missiles, and long range anti-ship missiles," he said. "These islands will also eventually be linked by underwater, surface and airborne surveillance sensors creating a ‘fence’ to keep out U.S. and allied military forces."
Fisher said that at the current rate of militarization in the sea, China could deploy the equivalent of a new navy fleet by 2020.
"The Obama administration has some good ideas about organizing greater maritime security cooperation and developing some new weapon systems to deter China, but it has also been too slow to recognize and is simply not moving fast enough to meet an accelerating Chinese challenge," Fisher said.
"America is now falling behind in a vital arms race with China and this points to real danger," he added. "China usually attacks when its opponents are weak and distracted."
U.S. intelligence officials have stated that China was expected to increase the militarization of the disputed islands in the sea in response to the resumption of U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations after a hiatus of nearly five years.
Navy warships passed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed islands in October and January, and further operations are expected.
The cruise missile deployments also contradict statements by Chinese President Xi Jinping made during a summit with President Obama in September.
At the meeting, Xi, who arrives in Washington this week for a nuclear security summit, pledged not to militarize the newly created South China Sea islands.
The Pentagon has said China in recent months has produced some 3,200 acres of land by dredging the sea floor and building up new islands.