China has reportedly deployed advanced surface-to-air missile launchers on the Paracel island chain, which is at the centre of a maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
Two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system were deployed on Woody Island, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, Fox News reported, citing images from ImageSat International.
China's latest military move in the disputed waters came even as US President Barack Obama concluded a two-day summit with the Asean leaders, where he called for action to ensure freedom of navigation and a peaceful resolution of the maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.
The US officials declined to comment on 'matters of intelligence.' "The United Sates continues to call on all claimants to halt land reclamation, construction, and militarization of features in the South China Sea," a US State department spokesperson told The Guardian.
"If they have been deployed they are probably China's effort to signal a response to freedom-of navigation operations, but I don't think it is a totally unprecedented deployment," the spokesperson added.
Taiwan also confirmed the missile system deployment on the island, which China has controlled since 1974, and said it "will closely watch subsequent developments."
Paracels and Spratlys
China lays claim to both the island chains stating that these were integral part of the empire from ages. In 1947 China formalised the claims by issuing a map showing the islands in its territory. But Vietnam has contested China's claims saying its rule over Paracels and Spratlys dates back to the 17th century.
China scored decisive military victories over Vietnam in recent decades in its quest to cement claims over the island chains. In 1974, more than 70 Vietnamese soldiers died in China's military offensive that seized control of Paracels. In 1988 Vietnam lost Spratlys to China in another bloody military conflict.
China angered Vietnam and the Philippines in 2012 when it created Sansha city, making it the administrative headquarters for the Paracels. Again that year, Vietnam alleged China sabotaged its exploration operations, setting off massive anti-China protests in the country.
In 2014, China set up a drilling rig in waters near the Paracel Islands and in 2015 satellite images showed Beijing was building an airstrip on land reclaimed around the Spratlys.
More than 20 people were killed in popular protests in Vietnam after China's rig move. China withdrew the rig after conducting drilling for two months.