China sends missiles to South China Sea, as ASEAN leaders wrap up meeting with Obama

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

China has deployed missiles to a disputed island in the South China Sea, just as ASEAN leaders were wrapping up a landmark summit with US President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands resort in California.

There has been no official acknowledgement by China that the move was made in relation to the US-ASEAN summit, which was being concluded on Tuesday (16 February). But given the timing of China’s deployment of the missiles, the South China Sea dispute has inevitably overshadowed the rest of ASEAN’s agenda at the Sunnylands summit.

In the lead-up to the summit, observers called for the South China Sea disputes not to overshadow other agenda items such as trade and economic issues.

The Sunnylands resort was also the location for a US-China summit, held between President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping in June 2013. The US State Department’s choice of the Sunnylands venue for the US-ASEAN summit seemed to observers to underscore the Obama administration’s aim of highlighting its strategic relationship with ASEAN as key to the US’s “pivot to Asia”.

“Turn your attention more to the lighthouses”

China’s deployment of missiles to Woody Island, an island also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The move was initially reported by Fox News, which obtained civilian satellite showing surface-to-air missile launchers, as well as a radar system, set up on Woody Island, over which China exercises de facto control. The missile launchers were absent from images dated 3 February of the same area of the island.

The reports were later confirmed by US Pentagon officials as well as Taiwanese defence ministry officials.

The first tacit acknowledgement by China of the reports of the missile deployment was made by its foreign ministry, Wang Yi, who was holding a joint press conference with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, in Beijing. When asked about the reports, Wang said he was only told of the reports moments before.

He also hoped that “the media everywhere… will turn your attention more to the lighthouses we have built on some of the islands… which are in operation now and have been very useful in assuring the safety of passing ships.”

Incidentally, Julie Bishop had said ahead of her trip to Beijing that she planned to challenge China on its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea.

Chinese defence ministry officials later stated that the defence facilities on Woody Island have “existed for years”.

US refrains from targeting China; summit yielded an economic initiative too

The South China Sea disputes were indeed discussed by President Obama and the ASEAN leaders at the Sunnylands summit. The resulting joint statement issued by the US and ASEAN leaders was predictably measured, emphasising the importance of the freedom of navigation in those waters.

The Obama administration was said to be pushing for a specific mention of China in the joint statement, with regard in particular to China’s activities in the South China Sea. It refrained from doing so, given resistance on the part of Laos and Cambodia, ASEAN members which have close ties with China.

But there were nevertheless some constructive developments in US-ASEAN relations, beyond the South China Sea issues. President Obama announced a new initiative called “US-ASEAN Connect”, which seeks to utilise a network of three hubs – Singapore, Jakarta, and Bangkok – to better coordinate the US’s economic engagement in the region with entrepreneurs, investors, and businesses.