China on Friday accused the U.S. of militarizing the South China Sea, just days after it was revealed Beijing had deployed surface-to-air missiles on an island in the hotly disputed area.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that patrols by U.S. military aircraft and Navy vessels, along with joint exercises involving regional partners were the true reason why concerns were growing over peace and stability.
“The above actions have escalated tensions in the South China Sea, and that’s the real militarization of the South China Sea,” Hong said.
U.S. and Taiwanese officials this week confirmed commercial satellite images showing the missiles placed on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel chain.
China has not denied the appearance of the missiles, but says it is entitled to defend its territory and points to the construction of light houses, weather stations and other infrastructure undertaken to provide more “public goods and services to the international community.”
U.S. says it has a national interest in the region’s stability and freedom of navigation and overflight in and above what are some of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested that the positioning of missiles and other signs of increasing militarization contradicted a public assurance from Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited the White House last September.
Hong’s comments represent China’s attempt to turn that accusation back on Washington, a cause to which it has rallied its entirely state-controlled media outlets.
China’s “defensive deployment on Yongxing targets external military threats,” the Communist Party newspaper Global Times said in an editorial, using China’s name for Woody Island. “The U.S. is bold about imposing pressure on China, and China must make an appropriate response.”
In the meantime, Australia and New Zealand on Friday strongly urged China to refrain from stoking tensions in the South China Sea after its apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island.
“We urge all claimants in the South China Sea to refrain from any building of islands, any militarization of islands, any land reclamation,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said after a meeting in Sydney with his New Zealand counterpart John Key. “It is absolutely critical that we ensure that there is a lowering of tensions.”
Turnbull said if Chinese President Xi Jinping was serious about avoiding the so-called Thucydides Trap, where a rising power causes fear in an established power that escalates toward war, he must resolve disputes through international law.
“President Xi is right in identifying avoiding that trap as a key goal,” said Turnbull, who is expected to visit Beijing in April.
New Zealand, the first developed country to recognize China as a market economy and to sign a bilateral free trade deal, was leveraging its relationship with China to urge measures to lower tensions, Key said.