China ups the ante in the South China Sea

It is hard to say that China’s President Xi Jinping isn’t consistent. Since he took office in 2013, President Xi has actively and aggressively asserted Chinese territorial claims, especially maritime ones. And while China’s construction of airfields on disputed islands in the South China Sea—over U.S. and Southeast Asian nations’ objections—was a step in the wrong direction, and the United States sailing a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of those islands poked China with a geopolitical stick, China’s latest move can only be viewed as escalation.

On Wednesday (Feb. 18), Taiwan’s defense ministry announced that it had first-hand confirmation that China had deployed surface-to-air missiles in the Paracel Islands, a South China Sea island chain southeast of Hainan Island, which is also claimed by Vietnam.

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China claims most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, denoted by a “nine-dash line” that extends almost to the coasts of the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Those nations, along with Taiwan, have competing claims for some of the islands within the sea, which is believed to hold significant energy and mineral deposits.

Aside from possible oil, gas and mineral finds, at issue is freedom of navigation for commercial and military shipping. About half of the world’s oil passes through those waters, supplying China’s rival Japan, along with China itself, and a huge amount of commercial goods.

“We will deploy necessary national defense facilities on the islands. It is an exercise of self-preservation and defense, a right granted by international law to sovereign states. It does not impede freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea that all countries are entitled to under international law,” China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei said on Tuesday. Mr. Hong did not address the missile issue specifically.

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