U.S. officials confirmed on Tuesday that the Chinese military sent fighter jets to an island in the South China Sea, the same island where they previously deployed surface-to-air missiles last week. The dramatic escalation came as Secretary of State John Kerry hosted his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at the State Department. One U.S. official, however, said China regularly sends jets to Woody Island, part of the Paracel archipelago controlled by Beijing. The deployment was first reported by Fox News.
Secretary Kerry said he wanted China to end its militarization of the contested islands in the South China Sea. “We want to halt the expansion and the militarization of occupied features,” he said. His Chinese counterpart added that he didn’t want to see any more U.S. military over flights or patrols.
Wang said Tuesday he hoped that “close up” military flights and patrols by U.S. Navy ships over the contested islands would end. Chinese Shenyang J-11 and Xian JH-7 fighter jets have been seen by U.S. intelligence on Woody Island in the past few days, Fox News said. Kerry however refused to blame China directly for the the military buildup in the South China Sea.
It is important for all of the nations – China, Philippines, Vietnam, others – not to engage in any unilateral steps of reclamation, of building, of militarization. And the fact is that there have been steps by China, by Vietnam, by others that have unfortunately created an escalatory cycle.”
Wang was supposed to visit the Pentagon Tuesday, but the visit was canceled. It was not immediately clear which side canceled the visit. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said a “scheduling conflict” prevented the meeting. Wang said the deployment of the missiles was for “defensive purposes.”
Woody Island is the largest island in the Paracel chain of islands in the South China Sea, and has had a runway since the early 1990s. It lies 250 miles southeast of a major Chinese submarine base on Hainan Island. China has claimed Woody Island since the 1950s, but it is contested by Taiwan and Vietnam.
China has created 3,000 acres of artificial islands atop reefs hundreds of miles south of Woody Island in the Spratly chain of islands. One runway was tested in January, when two commercial airliners landed at Fiery Cross Reef. After the deployment of fighter jets to Woody Island, officials are concerned the Chinese might send them south to the Spratly islands next.
China is “clearly militarizing the South China (Sea),” said Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, adding: “You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise.” Harris said he believed China’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea’s Paracel chain, new radars on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys and its building of airstrips were “actions that are changing in my opinion the operational landscape in the South China Sea.” China’s Foreign Ministry said ahead of Wang’s visit that Beijing’s military deployments in the South China Sea were no different from U.S. deployments on Hawaii.